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My Maternal Mental Health Story…

As it's maternal mental health week I've been reflecting a lot on my own experiences and the support (or rather lack of) that I received and how my own experiences have been a huge driving force to my business.

My first birth in 2006 left me (unbeknownst at the time) with alot of trauma, it was a very negative experience but at 19 years old I guess I was naive, I thought that it was "normal" and I was just "unlucky" to have had the birth I did. I was uneducated, unprepared & so were the people around me supporting me through it.

So I pushed it all aside and just "got on with it".

When I fell pregnant with my second daughter in 2010 it soon became apparent just how much my first birth had affected me and I started experiencing symptoms of anxiety and fear for my upcoming birth.

Everything I had pushed aside and not dealt with was suddenly at the forefront of my mind daily and I started to become very scared at the thought of having to experience all of that again.

I wanted a better experience this time round and I did do some work to try and make that happen (although now I know that I didn't prepare anywhere near enough). I went to pregnancy yoga, I did some antental sessions, read a book and I started to make plans for a VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean), I really wanted to experience a vaginal birth after having had an emergency caesarean with my first birth.

I felt the hospital weren't very supportive of my decision though and after a few problems with my pregnancy it soon became clear that a VBAC wasn't going to happen.

It was a tough pregnancy, I was very sick for the first half of it which thankfully eased off and I had a few weeks in the middle feeling good until I then developed SPD (symphysis pubis dysfunction) at around 25 weeks, this gradually worsened over the weeks and I spent the final few weeks of my pregnancy housebound, in agony at every movement I made, needing crutches to walk & having to sleep sat upright.

It was emotionally and physically draining.

At a growth scan at 36 weeks it was also discovered that my baby was breech (transverse) and it was unlikely she would be able to turn. So the decision was made to schedule an elective caesarean.

It didn't feel like I had much of a choice at the time and I think a part of me just wanted the pregnancy to be over too even though I was gutted that I wouldn't get the physiological birth I so desperately wanted.

Knowing I was going to have major surgery again filled me with so much anxiety, my recovery after my first caesarean had been horrific with a major infection and I was petrified of it happening again.

I remember the morning of my caesarean birth requesting a scan to just double check she hadn't turned and was still breech in one final hope that I may possibly be able to escape and go home and wait for labour to happen.

But she was still breech. I entered the theatre and instantly went into abit of a panic attack. I remember trying my hardest to do my hypnobirthing breathing I had learnt to try and calm myself down while my spinal was being administered but I had a midwife constantly asking me questions and trying to talk to me, I just wanted to tell her to "fuck off!!" and run out of there! Thankfully my husband read my anxiety and asked her to stop talking to me and I then managed to calm down & settle knowing I was about to meet my baby.

While the birth was a much better experience to my last, I still felt very out of control. I almost felt like a bystander in it all. When M was born she was taken straight away from me, cleaned & wrapped and when they finally brought her over to me she was handed to my husband & I couldn't really see her. When I look back at the photos that were taken in that moment I am tinged with sadness as I just look lost and desperate to have my baby in my arms.

Even once I left theatre she wasn't put skin to skin with me she was placed next to me cradled by my arm and it all just felt unnatural. I certainly didn't get that rush of love and happiness as soon as she was born.

The weeks following her birth I found myself being incredibly overwhelmed and anxious and I developed postnatal OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). I didn't want visitors, I didn't want anyone to hold my baby. But I didn't know how to say no to this and instead suffered in silence everytime someone visited in the early days. I was so desperate not to get another infection in my wound like last time I became obsessed with cleaning it & doing everything I could to prevent this - but this resulted in me getting sores which then caused a small infection.

I was desperate to breastfeed after "failing" to with my first daughter and I put so much pressure on myself. It wasn't working very well and I was struggling (I now know this was hugely down to lack of education and support). My husbands way of "supporting" me was to offer to bottle feed her and saying things like "it's not worth this stress", "all that matters is that she's fed", "let me help out and do some feeds" which I don't blame him for, it's the only way he knew how to help but was likely sabotaging my breastfeeding journey. After 4 weeks I ended up combination feeding and by 8 weeks I had pretty much given up breastfeeding. Again I was left with such huge feelings of failure.

There were so many factors that contributed to the deterioration in my mental health following the birth, feeding being one, my husband was back at work after a week due to being self employed, I had very little help from family/friends, my baby didn't sleep, she developed colic and reflux, she cried ALOT, I had another child to look after all while recovering physically from major surgery.

I soon started to develop quite intrusive thinking (part of my OCD), I would play out in my head daily the worst case scenarios in quite graphic detail & this fed into my anxiety more and more, but it was a cycle I couldn't break, I would engage in obsessive behaviours to stop these thoughts / scenarios from happening thinking I was helping myself and keeping my baby from harm but by engaging in them I was keeping the anxiety very much there and only making it worse. This was exhausting and not something anyone can keep up long term. I hid all of this from everyone. I felt so ashamed & guilty for feeling and acting this way. Not even my husband knew my true feelings and the full extend of it.

Weeks went by and things got worse for me, I remember one day him coming home from work and I just walked out the front door, I don't know where I was going or what I was doing I just know I had to get away. I wanted to escape. I didn't want to be a mum anymore. I didn't want these thoughts in my head anymore. I was exhausted, both mentally and physically. I couldn't cope. I had burnt out.

The days following this I started to feel very down. I felt numb. It's like I had felt and experienced every emotion possible, that I had nothing left to feel. It's like I became void of all emotion and I just wanted to shut off and hide away. I wasn't looking after myself properly. I was doing the best I could to provide for my children and look after them but everything was such an effort and there was no or very little enjoyment in any of it. I knew I loved them but I hated it at the same time.

When M was around 4/5 months old I started to attend a baby massage course at my local children's centre, this in itself was a hard thing to do, I was so scared of being judged negatively in the group I almost didn't go, but I'm so pleased I did. It was the start of me getting the help I needed.

A few weeks into the course I was starting to experience the benefits of baby massage and it gave me a space where I could go each week and just be her mum and spend quality time with her, to build on our bond, to grow my confidence as her parent, to learn skills to help me at home to settle her, to speak to other parents and I soon made some friends and created a much needed support network (some of these women are still my friends now almost 12 years on). But the biggest thing was the class leader Karen who one day took me aside after the session to do a weigh check for my baby & she asked me if I was ok. It was the moment I finally admitted that no I wasn't & I hadn't been for weeks. It felt like a huge weight had been lifted from me just saying it out loud and having someone hear me & not judge me. She encouraged me to go to my GP and to get some professional help.

I was scared going to my GP, again thoughts of failure & fear of judgment filled me, what if the Dr thought I was just wasting her time?

But I couldn't have been more wrong.

The Dr I saw listened to me & straight away reassured me that I had done the right thing coming to ask for help and that help was there for me, she diagnosed me with Postnatal anxiety and depression and offered me medication (Citalopram, an antidepressant). She also referred me to CBT (cognitive behavioural talking therapy).

I felt a real mixture of emotions leaving the doctors that day. Relief for one, but also still fear of judgment. I was scared to tell my loved ones the true extent of my suffering. I felt like such a failure to them. I should be thriving as a new mum, I had worked in early years for a number of years so I knew what I was doing right? I had just got married, I had two beautiful girls. I had the "perfect life" right? How would people view me once they know the truth, once they saw the real me under the mask I wore so well? So many thoughts were racing through my head again.

My medication helped me initially but I did have quite few side affects with it such as sickness, dizziness and I felt abit "zoned out" which I didn't like. After abit of a wait I started my CBT which I found helped me more & I was able to talk through things openly and freely while learning some techniques to help me manage these big emotions. I then gradually weaned myself off the tablets. Over the coming weeks / months things gradually improved and I started to enjoy motherhood more. I started to feel like me again.

My interest to support other mothers that were struggling started to grow more and more & in 2013 after funding had been cut in my local children's centre & no more baby massage classes were being offered I decided to train and set up my own private classes. It was the start of a whole new adventure for me, a new focus, and one I was determined to make a success of. The class had helped me start to get the support I needed, I couldn't bare the thought of other mums like me not having access to this. I fell in love instantly with teaching classes and still to this day love every single class I teach. I love to see the friendships blossom in group, the open conversations we have, the safe space that is created, the special moments we share. It just gives me a warm fuzzy feeling.

I've since grown my business more, a passion ignited in me to support more women / families and I wanted to expand into other avenues to achieve this. Training to become a Doula in 2018 not only changed my business but it changed my life (a bit dramatic I hear you think!). Day one of my training was all about exploring our own experiences and debriefing to the group. I really thought I was better & recovered from my birth and postnatal experiences but how wrong I was. Talking through it all and exploring what happened and why, once again brought everything to the surface and highlighted just how much work was still there for me to fully heal, I was really taken aback by how much that first day affected me & I went back to my hotel room that night and just cried and cried. It was like grief pouring out of me. All these surpressed emotions came flooding up. But in a good way. It's a tough one to explain. I felt like I was releasing all those feelings of failure I had and letting go. I finally saw it all in a different light. I finally didn't blame myself anymore. I finally knew that I didn't fail....I was failed. Those words have stayed with me since that day "you did not fail, you was failed". Such a simple sentence but it held so much power. Those words changed me. They allowed me to let go of all that blame I had put on myself. Those 4 days in training were like therapy for me. I came home a different woman. And I had a fire inside me to make a change for other women.

But I recognised I needed to do more inner work on me before I could enter that space & that's when I found Sarah, The Emotional Health Coach and embarked on her 8 week programme, and the 7 steps to self empowerment. Wow! I thought I knew some things about my mind from doing the CBT but I really had only touched the surface. This programme transformed me. It armed me with tools and knowledge to ride any storm that may come my way in the future. And it has allowed me to step into the very best version of me to be able provide the best support and care to my clients. And I am now an emotional health coach myself after going on to train with her too.

So my road to recovery following my maternal mental illness really took years. It wasn't a quick fix at all.

I've learned that your emotional & mental health is something that constantly needs attention. Just like we exercise and eat a balanced diet (most of the time!) for our physical health we need to check in with ourselves and nurture our emotional/ mental health too. It's not something that you can work on once and then neglect and think it will just be ok. It's a constant work in progress.

Recent events in my life have really tested everything I know and pushed my mental health to its limit once again but this time around I know what is happening, I recognise the symptoms I'm experiencing. I have had absolutely no shame or guilt about reaching out for support and I am back in therapy currently. But I know I will be ok. And I know that brighter days will come again, because im prioritising myself and my well-being.

If you have got this far - well done!

I do hope by being totally open and honest it's helped you in some way. To know you are not alone in your struggles. To reach out and ask for help. To know that asking for help isn't a sign of weakness - it's strength! I know it's not easy to do. But you've got this. You are worthy. You are loved. You are worth fighting for. And there are an army of people out there waiting to help you see those brighter days again. ❤️

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