8 September 2017

My Story

A pregnant friend of mine asked me today if she needs to be worried about giving birth. Isn't that a loaded question?! Every mum who has gone through labour has a labour story, and I am no different. Whenever I've been asked about labour by a pregnant woman I've tried to be honest without being cruel; no-one benefits from expecting a quick, rosy labour and the advice I found most helpful was from people who told me the honest truth (it hurts. A LOT) but also it isn't nice to put terror into a pregnant woman's heart.. It has got me thinking about my own story though, so allow me a little time to self-indulge. While I'm not entirely OK with sharing my labour story, I am OK with sharing that I found it a traumatic experience and I struggled with the aftermath of it all.

Having worked in mental health for a few years I was pretty well acquainted with the mental health services in Edinburgh and a big fan of people being open about their mental health & getting help when needed. However, things are a bit different when you're on the other side of it, aren't they? 
After having a few infections and a problematic pelvis my health visitor was entirely not surprised when I told her I was struggling during those first few weeks. She gave me lots of moral support and practical advice, but after a few months we decided that I needed a little extra help. I was referred to a postnatal services unit, assigned a counsellor and they had me in for counselling within a couple of weeks. 
With a creche on site I didn't have to work around Abe's shifts so I went along to the soonest appointment, not really knowing what to expect. I didn't know what would happen, and I didn't know how I would react or cope. I hadn't ever left Christopher with anyone except my mum so leaving him in creche was difficult, and I got myself into a pickle (read: panic attack and sobbing mess). 
I think I've always been on the side of anxious, personality-wise. Motherhood has just sent this into overdrive. The problem with motherly anxiety is that you're not necessarily worrying about wild, out-there things, but have heightened worries about logical things. So I wasn't worrying about alien invasions, but I was terrified that leaving my baby in a creche with strangers would lead to him being abducted (by people, not aliens..) or taken away from me. OK it does sound crazy, doesn't it?! 
I've never thought that it did until I saw it typed down! (I still have big fears about that actually, but nothing compares to those first few months..) That first session didn't last long, once I had calmed down we chatted about what I was struggling with and what I hope to achieve through counselling. I had a few bouts of verbal diarrhoea, shed some tears then apologised for them profusely, saying that I wouldn't cry in the future sessions and I had no idea where the tears came from. This was an unintentional lie, I was an anxious wreck constantly on the verge of tears who then spent at least 70% of my sessions talking through tears. I thought that it would be awkward, especially with a male counsellor, but he listened to me. 
I didn't realise how badly I just wanted to get stuff off my chest and have someone listen, someone who wouldn't judge and wouldn't necessarily offer solutions, but really just listen. It made me feel like my emotions were valid, though they stemmed from mental illness. They may have been utterly bonkers but that's how I felt and it was real to me. I had plenty of people telling me that my fears were irrational and "classic new mum", but that didn't help me one bit. 
It took me a few sessions to settle in but I had about eight months of weekly sessions and I found it really helpful. It was a judgement-free place to air my mum guilt, my anxieties, discuss things further and get to the roots of some issues I've struggled with. I talked a lot about giving birth to Christopher and it really helped me to process it all and put it down to experience, in order to enjoy time with my wee boy. 
Mum Guilt is very real, and I spent a lot of time in the first few months after Christopher was born feeling guilty for not coping very well. I felt so guilty for not savouring every second, and instead pushing it all to the back of my mind so I didn't have to think about anything or remember anything. 
I still have a lot of blanks in my memory from the first 6 months (apart from the memory of labour. Those people who say you forget the pain are talking absolute rubbish) but luckily Abe encouraged me to take lots of pictures so I have LOADS to look at and see the happy moments in amongst all that chaos. I took a picture of Christopher on our first outing just the two of us. Abe was out and my mum (who had come to visit the day Christopher was born, then I asked her to stay for the whole week.. I wasn't prepared for how much I needed my mum! Very thankful for her!) had just gone home and I wanted some fresh air. I wrapped Christopher up in roughly twenty seven thousand blankets/layers and got him cosy in his pram and off we set. We only made it down the road before I panicked and went back home so it wasn't exactly a success but I felt like I had conquered the world. 
Sometimes I think it's more about how it made you feel than the actual experience itself (ha, can you tell I've had counselling?!) That picture isn't good photography, it shows how anxious I was and that I'd over-wrapped my baby but when I look at that picture I feel empowered somehow.
I'd love to hear from other people who've struggled with their mental health in those postpartum months. How did you cope? How did your partner cope? My husband Abe comes from a country where mental illness is rarely discussed. When I got my job working for a mental health charity he didn't really know why such a place existed. He's not un-supportive, it's just that he comes at it from a totally different angle. So when I was struggling with all the anxiety and needing some extra support he wasn't sure how to handle things. 

I'll be honest, it caused a bit of tension in our relationship in those few months, where he couldn't understand why I was behaving the way that I was and I couldn't understand why he wasn't there for me the way I wanted him to be. It taught us a lot, and we are still navigating the sometimes tricky waters of a multi-cultural relationship. Those first few months of motherhood were overwhelming and absolutely terrifying. Of course there were beautiful days and beautiful moments too, but anxiety was always lurking. Once I recognised it and got help I managed to bond properly with my boy, something that I had struggled with at the start. I loved him from the moment I knew I was pregnant but bonding with him was difficult because I was so anxious about everything to do with him. 

It isn't something I share with pregnant friends (or friends in general really) because I don't want to add worry or pressure to them, but if talking about it can help an anxious new mum to go and get help then I'm all in. We all need a bit of help sometimes, and there's no shame in that. 

Written by Kirsten @kirsten_abeeohyay 

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