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Archive for October 2017

Confident Cat

I used to be a confident Cat. Aware of my achievements, secure in my ability to communicate and engage with others, and comfortable in a professional context. Being ill has changed many things about me, but one of the things I struggle most with is the decimation of my confidence. Now I feel waves of anxiety when I have planned to meet someone, even someone I know well. I worry about my ability to carry a conversation, I feel like there is little of value to say about my life and I picture running out of thoughts and words. I’ve started work on book number II and part of that will involve interviewing people, a thought that currently terrifies me so I’ve been hiding in the realms of Internet research instead. There’s a lot of Internet to hide in.

But I must write the book so I must overcome these issues. I’ve tried to push myself outside of my comfort zone, something my community psychiatric nurse has been encouraging as she fears I’m too reliant on my husband now. She’s right. I worry about walking between places by myself, picturing a tsunami of things that could befall me, and consequently I depend on my husband’s presence on virtually all journeys. I used to be such an independent creature, travelling to India, South Africa, Tanzania and Peru by myself. Now I struggle with the 5 minute walk to Sainsbury’s.

I’ve tried pushing myself by making playdates with friends, despite the sense of trepidation it gives me, because invariably when I get there we have plenty to talk about and the conversation carries just fine. I can do it. I just fear I can’t. And I get so much from these encounters in soft play cafes and coffee shops. I’m grateful to the women who meet me, who make the effort to reach out, they have no idea how valuable their time is to me.

Playdates are a sensible step, but I’m not always a sensible soul. One of my personal quirks, that has not been altered by illness, is my tendency to go all in. Which is how, despite my fear of Sainsbury’s, I found myself with tickets booked for a trip to London. By myself. My inspiration was strong – a free dinner at Claridge’s and the opportunity to meet the Dean of Harvard School of Public Health, an accomplished woman with experience of maternal mental health research. My fear was also strong – the tube, a hotel, streets bustling with busy people. But I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I stayed in a bit of London I knew well and didn’t stray from it, apart from my trip to Claridge’s. It’s a bit that holds the Wellcome Collection (which houses my favourite exhibition and bookshop) and the British Library (one of my favourite spaces). I knew those streets, I cried when I saw them again, like meeting an old friend after a long time apart and with much water under the bridge. The atmosphere was made all the more nostalgic by the busker playing Adele’s Someone Like You, “Old friend, why are you so shy? Ain’t like you to hold back or hide from the light…” I made frequent, often tearful and fearful, calls to my reassuring husband. I chain ate Valium. But I did it. I had a pretty positive evening, made much easier by the kind and clever conversation of the dinner guest to my right. Together we were bold enough to approach the Dean, who was a pure delight to speak to. Thoughtful and insightful when I asked questions, compassionate when I told my story of psychosis and depression.

I did it. But it came at a price. I thought once I proved I could do London I could do anything, like ripping off the proverbial plaster. Instead I returned even more anxious. I don’t know if it was the massive build up of adrenaline from the trip, or seeing the gap between how I used to breeze through London compared with my now terror-stricken tube riding, but something made me even more fearful of speaking to people and of venturing out alone. Perhaps I used up my annual allowance of bravery on that one trip.

Now I’m not so brave, but I am still slowly pushing out my boundaries with more manageable challenges. If you have any tips or advice for reclaiming confidence after maternal mental illness I could do with them! Today’s challenge is going to a book group. I’ve read the book, I think I understood it, but I’m incredibly nervous about the prospect of discussing it with bright literary types. But I’m going to do it because the world I currently inhabit is too small for me. I want it to be bigger, bolder and brighter. I want to reclaim that fiercely independent Cat I used to be. And one day I will.

Recovery: The long and bumpy road

The past tense. It’s something you use daily. There are many opportunities when I get to do the same – ‘I did a good job at work’ ‘I handled a nappy full of exploded…rainbows’, ‘I patiently (well, at least slowly) explained something to my husband’. But not when it comes to recovery from mental illness – then I must use the present tense. 20 months after my baby was born, I’m still ambling down the road to recovery. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever reach the end of it, or if such a thing exists.

I have days when everything seems fine and we go to a cute cafe or walk alpacas in the sunshine (like actually, no hallucinations, I promise!) Then there’s the other days. The dark days when I have to drag my soul to partake in anything other than breathing and lying on the sofa. They are only occasional now, thankfully, but when they hit I have to reach deep, so deep to find the will to do something as simple as leave the house. For my baby’s benefit I force myself to walk to playgroup and smile and chat to people. I contort my face into the correct shape, whilst my mind races for the ‘right’ thing to say, hoping beyond hope that I don’t betray the void inside. I hold back tears, pushing them, shoving them back into my face with the force of my mind, staring hard towards the sky to stop them spilling down. Though I feel the fear of discovery at the time, on reflection I’m reasonably sure nobody has a clue about what’s bubbling beneath the surface. I’ve carved my ‘mask of managing’ beautifully, it is exquisite – chatty, happy and absolutely impenetrable. Yet as I write, I let it slip – demonstrating its existence to the world. I worry about doing this, just as I worry about how long I will be wearing it for.

However I have reasons to be hopeful when it comes to recovery. For instance, I’ve met mums who have gone on to achieve extraordinary things after maternal mental health problems. Like those who lead the work of charities like Maternal Mental Health Scotland (MMHS) or Action on Postpartum Psychosis (APP), both of which received awards at the Maternal Mental Health Alliance Conference in September 2017. I’ve joined them in helping others by volunteering with MMHS as a Change Agent. Through and with them, I’m contributing to the current redesign of Ready Steady Baby – the book all prospective mothers are handed in Scotland. We’re helping hone the messages on maternal mental health, and being part of that is immensely rewarding. I can’t change the path I’ve come down, but if I can help another mum get the help she needs quicker, or feel less shame about being ill, then I’ll have made a difference. A difference to them, and to me. You see, I have this drive to create something positive from the profoundly negative rabbit hole of postpartum psychosis and postnatal depression that I fell down. I believe it is this drive that will push me further and further towards being recovered, different from the girl before this journey, but, crucially, not less than her. I see this drive in other volunteers, a burning passion, and it gives me hope that together we will raise the profile of maternal mental illness and drive real change.

Volunteering has helped me with recovery, but there are probably as many ways to recover as there are women who have been affected. I’ve also found writing helpful, and I’d love to know how you or your loved ones have journeyed the road to recovery – what’s helped? What would you recommend? For me, for now, I have to use the present tense to describe my struggles, but hopefully one day with the help of writing and medication and exercise I will be able to put them firmly in my past.

A Welsh MBU Please

This week a report came out on the subject on mother and baby units (MBUs) in Wales. They currently have no MBUs and mums are being sent to England instead. This breaks my heart. When I was in the MBU my husband was able to come in every day, we were able to continue being a family through all the pain and stress of my being unwell. He rocked me whilst I cried, he made me smile when I thought I’d lost the ability to ever smile again, he gave me reassurance, love and hope. The first time I left the ward to walk the grounds, I did so clutching his hand. He was essential to my recovery. I can’t imagine trying to recover without the presence of the person who knows me and loves me most in the world. I also can’t imagine depriving him of that precious time with his baby. Mums aren’t the only ones who need to bond with their baby.

I know I was one of the lucky ones. Other mums in the unit I was in had traveled hundreds of miles across Scotland to be there, and were left without the constant support of their loved ones. The nature of highly specialised services is that some people will have to travel, but the idea that journey should be as far as from Wales to Manchester (as was offered to one mum) is ludicrous. Thankfully I’m not the only one who thinks so and today a report by the Welsh Government’s Children and Young People’s committee stated that the current care for women suffering from severe perinatal mental illnesses is ‘wholly inadequate’ and joined calls for an MBU in south Wales.

Presently, 60-80 women in Wales are treated in adult psychiatric wards, where their babies cannot stay with them. I was briefly admitted to such an environment because my daughter was over a year old, making us ineligible for MBU treatment, and I can say it was exceedingly distressing. It was the first time I had spent a night apart from her and that fact felt like a cold blade cutting through me. We had been together through so much, but now I had failed her, lost her. My husband brought her in, as I was fortunate enough to have a single room, but it wasn’t set up for babies. The MBU had toys and books and a dedicated playpen, plus wonderful nursery nurses who arranged splash play, weaning classes and baby massage. There were other mums who were facing similar challenges with their mental health and motherhood to talk to. All of this ensured I got well as quickly as possible and that I was equipped to be a (relatively) confident mum at the end of it. My time on the adult ward was cold, unfeeling and lonely by comparison, and it didn’t feel like an appropriate environment to bring my baby into.

In response to the committee’s recommendation The Welsh Government have pointed to their investment in community services, which are essential, but hopefully they will also see the need to go beyond that and provide the specialist in-patient care of a Welsh MBU. Surely Welsh mums deserve far better than ‘wholly inadequate’ care? I’d love to know if you think we need more MBUs, not just in Wales but in the whole of the UK.