…is flipping tomorrow! That was quick. I was hoping for the traditional 18 month wait. Wish me luck.
(If you’re wondering where my previous post went, I have made it private as I’ve found this to be true. Thank you for all your comments and encouragement!)
So, I’m starting therapy for death anxiety (my medical diagnosis that led me to it are generalised anxiety disorder and panic disorder but I prefer to think of them as ARGH). Expect this series of posts to be even more introspective and self obsessed than usual, and for this blog, that’s saying something.
Two years ago (christ), I wrote a post called, “When Fear Becomes Phobia”. It described my ARGH FUCK panic around death and deadness, and how my world was getting smaller and smaller because of it. Last year, I went to the doctor and asked for help. She was so sympathetic that she made me cry. Saying what an awful thing to carry around with me for 12 years (14, now) and she referred me to therapy. I found out I was pregnant, had an assessment and things didn’t go any further because I was suffering such crippling morning sickness that the 40 minute bus journey to the appointment was 1 hour 30 minutes because I’d have to jump off twice to vomit. Later on in pregnancy, I dispensed with such courtesies and just huffed up all over my lap, or into a friendly plastic bag. Pregnancy was also pretty distracting- all my anxieties were focused on that, and I didn’t have the mental reserves to panic about death anymore.
My panic has returned, as it does. It’s not constant and strikes at night when I’m trying to sleep (and flip, I need my sleep!) It doesn’t disturb anyone because I sleep in the spare room (Robert does night feeds due to my medication). It means it’s quiet, private, lonely. It comes and goes, ebbs and flows. It’s probably unsurprising. I had a baby, then I lost my grandmother, and it was my dad’s anniversary. Catholicism ritualises death in a way that’s both comforting and horrifying. It makes you look at it, it makes an object of it. She was in a coffin in the sitting room that my dad’s coffin was in, for days, with the same yellow, unnaturally smooth, chillingly cold skin that you have to touch to say goodbye. Their coffins, and every childhood Christmas. These things bring death bubbling back to the surface of your mind. It’s hard to close it out when you’re trudging up a hill behind it. Robert’s grandmother died the month after, and her funeral was like a trip to Argos. Closed, quiet, scripted, burned. I prefer the visceralness of Catholicism, even if it haunts me. It does at least give death, and life, some gravitas.
So, I’ve been referred back to therapy for it. My psychiatrist initially wanted to increase my medication but I refused. This feels existential, albeit obsessive. I’ve often been able to distract myself and try to be less up my own arse, but distraction is tricky and I’m introspective generally. It doesn’t need to be medicated away- that just makes me feel worse.
The assessment happened pretty quickly. A chat over the phone, which gave me a sense of pride that I didn’t have to list a litany of other issues. I haven’t self harmed in six years, my bipolar disorder (if I ever had it) is pretty well controlled. I wasn’t depressed, wasn’t struggling otherwise. I’ve come quite a long way. I knew what they’d recommend- CBT (*spits*) but I’m willing to give it a chance.
The therapist is called Sean, which means the assessment didn’t entail the usual 45 minutes of tuition in how to pronounce my name. It’s high intensity IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies), so the sessions aren’t at the mental health team (thank bollocks, I used to work at my local one), but in an unassuming house with comfy sofas, pot plants and James Frey books that I had to stop myself openly guffawing at perched proudly on the Ikea shelves.
He asked me what I wanted help with so I explained. I forgot to bring the questionaire they sent me so went through some of it there. My depression score was low, as I knew it would be. People tend to assume I must be suffering from depression if I’m having panic attacks and anxiety.
Depression is both a mortal enemy and an enemy of mortality. For me, it is ageless, timeless emptiness. It tries to kill me, and it kills the thing inside me that makes me afraid of it doing so. I want to die when I’m depressed.
So when I’m not depressed, I’m scared of that. It’s like being held under water and a peaceful acceptance of what it happening envelopes you, until the final second, and you kick, you convulse in order to be free, to be alive, to throw off the aggressor and then relive over and over at how close you came to drowning.
I do sometimes feel depressed because of the panic. I feel frustrated and angry with myself that I have panic attacks. I feel frightened and distressed by some of the intrusive thoughts I have (like when I’m speaking to someone and suddenly an image of them dead flashes into my brain, with hallucinatory vividness) and sometimes they make me feel like I’m going mad. But depression and this panic don’t come together, and that’s a big massive pain in the hole. The panic tends to be the worst during the happier periods of my life. I’m happy, hurrah, and then my mind goes, “This will end it, all of it, everything, and because it will end, this is meaningless, you won’t be here one day, any day, none of them will” and that’s just BLOODY FUCKING GREAT isn’t it. I don’t want to die, ever, because I enjoy my life. I’m essentially a happy person who wants to see what’s going to happen. I want to be standing at the end of the universe with Robert and Oisín watching supernovas and planets and the sun.
(Close to my heart)
(Never to part).
Maybe it is partly a coping mechanism, the fear. Like pinching yourself.
He asked me if I had other anxiety- I do, social anxiety, but I’m dealing with that in my own way so I didn’t want any help which he accepted (and I think it’s tied up in this anyway).
Two things were said during the assessment that made me willing to continue. One was something stunningly obvious but that I had genuinely never considered. The therapist said that my kind of anxiety is, “idiosyncratic”. It’s not a common reason people come to therapy. That floored me. “Doesn’t EVERYONE feel this way?” I said. No, apparently not. At least, not to the degree they end up in therapy. So, is it that this is such an ordinary fear we live with it and are in denial, or am I the odd one for being periodically consumed by it?
Another was asking me where I think it came from. Nobody has ever asked me that before, and it’s not something I’ve thought about. The worst of my panic began when I was 15. That’s when it started flinging me screaming across the room. “Is that when your friend committed suicide?” Yes, it was- but the panic attacks started before then. Robert (who I first went out with when I was 14), remembers my panic on the phone, but it was more contained, and I was easier to comfort and distract.
It started well before then, when I was about 7 (?). Both my parents had mental maladies. I felt like they were going to die and I was terrified of it. I became aware they wouldn’t be there one day and I feared all the time it was the day. I used to pad into their room at night to check they were still breathing, then pad back and lie awake in the moon (just like I do now with the baby!). I realised I was going to die too, and sometimes would wake up screaming. Death felt close, ever present, non abstract. I could only perceive it in my childish way, but I never felt safe, and I never have since.
Of course, that’s just a bit of it- I might be wrong, but I had never connected the two things before. I had a massive resurgence after my dad died, too, which is natural. But it wasn’t so much his death as knowing that he feared it. That kills me, still. I hate that he was afraid. If I could do one thing in my life, one magical thing, it would be to take that fear from him before he died.
He asked me what I wanted to get out of therapy. I don’t know really. Not to have panic attacks anymore. To be able to watch/read/listen to anything again. Not to have to ring in late to work because I’ve disintegrated at a funeral procession. To fall asleep. To be able to think about Oisín’s future. At the moment, I’m too scared to talk about it, think beyond tomorrow, in case he’s not here for it, or that I’m not. I’m petrified of something happening to him, and feel superstitious about it. It’s a loss I know I would never, ever recover from, be able to go on living beyond. Pregnancy should have taught me the futility of this- when it seemed like there was bad news at the 20 week scan, my anxiety didn’t protect me. It didn’t cushion it, it didn’t make anything easier. I want to be able to talk to Robert about him riding a bike, or going to school, or falling in love. I want to be here and present in the moment without thinking how it’s going to end. That it is. I want to be able to sleep without hours of panic beforehand. I want to be able to not feel regret about not living if I do die tomorrow. When I’m going through anxious periods I always feel mildly dissociated, not here. I don’t want to feel that way anymore. I don’t want horrible flashes in my brain anymore. I don’t want my coping mechanism for the feelings of helplessness and inevitability to be nihilism, as it means I make unhealthy choices (like smoking, which will actively shorten my life, and thus leads to more panic attacks). I want to be present for myself, for my child. Life is so brief. And it is all.
He said that this will involve some unpleasant feelings, but that it usually helps. He says when it doesn’t, “work”, it’s often because people haven’t done the things long enough (bit of, “blame the patient” here, but I understand what he means as my last assessment person gave me a workbook I barely glanced at). I’m pretty frightened of what this is going to entail, and how hard it’s going to be. I’m aware it might mean it gets worse before it gets better, and I’m feeling pretty apprehensive about that. Shit scared, to be honest.
But I’m doing it. So let’s see where this goes. I’ll keep you updated!
And they are rapidly becoming indefensible. For anyone who looks to them for hope or humanity, we are further abandoned. People are suffering and the suffering is going to become even worse and Labour stand by to watch it happen.
Shame on Labour. I am disgusted I ever voted for or believed in you. I give up.
Well done to the 48 who voted with a conscience (including David Lammy, oddly) but you still belong to a party of bastards.
I know this post is insight free, just wanted to register my anger somewhere.
Ruby Wax has caused a minor kerfuffle by suggesting that those us whom struggle with our mental health should keep it quiet from employers, and in fact, lie to them in order to protect ourselves.
How many of us have had, “a cold” when general misery has flattened us to our beds? Had dodgy trains when it’s really been a panic attack?
In a perfect world, we’d be able to tell the truth. And our employers would be able to respond compassionately and sensibly. But it’s not a perfect world. Nor is it some post-stigma world as Eleanor Morgan suggests in her response to Ruby Wax:
For Wax, a prominent advocate of mental health awareness and visibility, to tell those of us who experience a mental health problem – one in four in the UK each year – that we’re still stigmatised seems a significant regression. Because as a nation we’ve got much better at not looking on those with mental health problems as weird.
If this has been your experience, then frankly, you are privileged. You are lucky. Mental health problems and the people who experience them are still stigmatised. Just because we’re a bit better now doesn’t mean there aren’t people collapsing under the weight of the word, “psycho”, thinking of which imaginary family member they went to care for in that gap in their CV, having obvious self harm scars people frown at and comment on, being laughed at in the street by your neighbours, having friends and strangers speculate on their mental health when they leave the house or spend their benefits money on something other than bread and water as meaning that they, “can’t be that depressed”, writing their DLA form knowing they’re fucked anyway because in this shiny, happy, post stigma world, mental health problems are being written out of the script altogether and it’s just mind over matter, just Not Trying Hard Enough. It’s hard to know which is worse- being written off as a psycho forever, or your experiences being flatly denied in crazy-making gymnastics which make you wonder if you imagined them all, too.
I’m privileged. I’m sure most of you know this, but I work for Mind, the mental health charity (and it goes without saying that this blog is my opinion, not theirs). My manager is, as you’d expect, very good about mental health and they know all about mine, and what to look out for if I’m getting unwell (thanks to a WRAP). I have reasonable adjustments and understanding for my issues (I’m not too sharp early in the morning due to medication, for example). In my case, I feel valued partly due to my experiences, and not in spite of them. And that makes me very lucky. Although we want to work towards a world where this is the rule, not the exception, there’s no way of knowing what your workplace is until you get there.
And it’s fine not to want to tell. There’s so much talk of, “fighting stigma”, as if that makes us all these foot soldiers. You don’t have to be. You don’t have a responsibility to disclose to, “fight stigma”. You don’t have a responsibility to anybody else but yourself and you should never feel bad that you want to protect yourself. You aren’t failing anybody, letting any side down, by not wanting to be open about your experiences or diagnosis. The reason celebrities can come out and speak is often because they have a lot less to lose (but even then, look at the reception different celebrities get, how struggling with addiction and depression is treated differently from just depression, how Paul Gascoigne is an object of ridicule whereas Stephen Fry isn’t, and in particular, look at the attitudes towards women who speak out as being trivial, hysterical or overemotional).
And things may be evolving, as Eleanor Morgan says. The discourse may be changing around depression and anxiety- but it’s not so much around personality disorders and psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia. Could we change it by opening up? Maybe- but often the shittiest response is in the mental health system itself both to its patients and its employees, and if it’s been demonstrated to you time and time again that yes, you actually do have something to fear, and you will be treated badly, how is someone going to get the confidence to open up generally?
Of course, if you need support and understanding, it is better to tell. If it becomes unavoidably obvious, it’s better to be honest. But although Eleanor says,
Here are the facts: it’s illegal to be dismissed from your job because of a mental health problem. The Equality Act, bringing together the laws that were found in the Disability Discrimination Act, Race Relations Act and Sex Discrimination Act, protects people from discrimination on the grounds of disability. If you have a mental health problem you may not think of yourself as disabled, but if it has a significant impact on your day-to-day life for a period of time, it will probably be considered a disability under this law. It’s a very detailed law, but Mind provides a legal briefing about how it works.
Most important, an employer should not treat you unfavourably because of a disability, and must make “reasonable adjustments to work practices, and provide other aids and adaptations” – for example, being flexible about hours, and temporarily allowing you to work part-time, or have a period of sick leave with the clear reassurance that you are still valued as an employee. If you feel as if you’ve been fired under the cloak of “something else”, chances are you will be protected.
It is extremely hard to prove you’ve been sacked for mental illness, as well as extremely time consuming and legalese. If you’re a temp, you might feel like you have little recourse, likewise if you’re on a zero hour contract and they stop giving you hours. I’m neither wealthy nor successful but i have been fired for my mental health. I was a temp, and there was an extremely specific search to this blog that only my employer could have made, and the next day, I was fired. They just “didn’t need me” anymore. I knew they’d found my blog and read it and that was that, but I couldn’t prove it. And many people with mental health issues will be in unstable employment where it’s tougher to know your rights, or harder to fight for them. And as for, “getting back on your feet”, as Eleanor puts it, no matter how much we want to say mental health and physical health are the same, they aren’t. They should have parity of esteem, but mental illness affects people differently than physical health. You may get, “back on your feet” but have lost your family and friends in the process, and you might have to be on medication for the rest of your life that will affect you physically and cognitively. In a lot of cases, you can be well, “recovered” but need adjustments for the treatment.
Those adjustments may not be made for you, either, due to the nature of your job. I left my nursing degree due to being told to suck it up- I had to work nights and late earlies which meant I wasn’t able to take my medication and invariably I became ill. There was little practical support and no adjustments (and that isn’t even accounting for the shit attitudes I encountered as a mental health nursing student with mental health issues, including a staff member grabbing my scarred arms in front of a patient and shouting at me). My experiences might not be reflective as a whole, but it also shows that there isn’t a cohesive approach to helping employees (or students) with a mental health issue.
The onus on fighting stigma shouldn’t just be on us, but on the people who treat us, the people whom we work for, the people who love us. Whereas Ruby Wax compares mental health to gay rights, and it was gay people who fought for those rights often to a huge personal cost (and their lives), we should be able to count on the backup of those institutions for whom our diagnosis, in one way or another, matters. If you want to tell, if you want to be the one to challenge it, if your workplace is trying, then tell. It can definitely be a powerful thing to take that control instead of worrying about being, “found out”. But please, don’t feel bad if you don’t. Don’t feel like you’re buying into a, “regressive” idea, because you aren’t. It’s okay not to tell.
And employers who are crap with this stuff- you’re missing out on some amazing people. It’s your loss.
A gigantic THANK YOU! for all your comments and reblogs on my last post. What a lovely response. I feel like I should follow it up but I’m still one lap short so consigned to my phone. I’ll update proper soon.
Instead of an epic post, I thought I’d give you a quick heads up about:
Dear Stranger is a compilation of specially written letters on the subject of happiness. Such excellent people as Marian Keyes and Caitlin Moran have contributed, and all profits go to Mind.
I’ve also contributed with something I think is a bit odd (and written in the hormonal, angsting fugue of the overdue pregnancy) but which other people assure me isn’t too weird and is actually quite good. Hooray!
It’s about something I wrote about here, too. My fear that my mentalism would blot out my wedding day and that I’d have to be pushed up the aisle like a chess piece (because mental illness isn’t picky). And how that jellyfishing, stretchy depression gradually shrank over the next few months.
It’s out on July 2nd- you can get your copy here.
Edit: for some reason this post is showing as May 18th. I wrote it on June 11, so go figure!
I’m currently writing this at 11.30pm, in the garden, where a fairly stiff breeze is blowing. This is the only place I know I won’t run to the baby if he cries (Robert is in the house with him, in case you think I’ve just left him). I’ve wanted to get some thoughts down about motherhood for months, but it’s been rather hard to write. Not just due to the new occupant of my lap. But because my feelings are hurricaning through me and evolving every day.
When I was pregnant, I finally kicked a nasty, expensive habit that garnered me more than my fair share of tuts and frowns.
Part of the reason I read these exploitative trashmags is that I love peoples’ stories. I don’t think anything is banal. When I was pregnant, I would walk down the street with a person in my body (!!!), thinking, “And this will be you”. The fact that he would be walking down a street lost in his own thought was absolutely mindboggling to me. I find it endlessly fascinating that there’s a story behind every face, that every person dwells within their own private universe. In a way, there’s nothing more ordinary, and nothing more amazing.
In January, Eva Wiseman wrote an article in the Guardian- “The seismic changes of having a baby”. I read it when it was linked by various Facebook friends. The consensus being, “Big deal. Woman has baby shocker”. Commentary on how self obsessed her article was. Big deal indeed.
Something isn’t less special, less beautiful, because it’s commonplace. Every day is filled with unfathomable, unpredictable ordinariness. Dreams, seasons, love. And grief isn’t less black and deep and consuming because it’s something that happens to everyone, every day, everywhere. Nobody (well, I hope not) tuts and rolls their eyes and says, “Big deal. People die everyday”. So why do we do it when people are born? Why, outside the climatic yet somehow bland scenes of a romcom, is it less amazing?
It’s a peculiarly misogynistic view to hold, this woman’s world of babies and childbirth. How dull, how droll. How very trivial. From woman to mummy, from one judgement to another. (I saw a tweet from a supposed feminist about another feminist, scorning an article they’d written sarcastically saying, “Did she mention she’s a mother?” I blocked her). Women across the world are judged on their status as a mother, or potential mother. Being a, “real” woman is partly judged by your attitude towards or your ability to reproduce. Our reproductive capacity is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of being female. It’s when domestic violence often starts or intensifies. It’s a visible, very visceral sign of your sexual activity. You can die because of it- through pregnancy, through childbirth, or through not being able to have a baby. Women are murdered because of it, women kill themselves over it. And the first year postpartum is one of the riskiest periods in a woman’s life- where suicide is the biggest killer. Yeah, this shit matters. This is not trivial. The people I’ve spoken to most about parenthood have been men. It’s applauded for the dads to say how amazing it is to have a child, but for mothers, there’s ridicule. So what.
I can understand a distaste of the oddly consumerist and competitive side of parenthood. Who’s having the “easiest” pregnancy, to the easy baby, to the best pram, the milestones. That’s trivial. But sharing these things is part of the culture of parenthood. Part of life itself. Sharing the darker aspects- feeding problems, illness, relationship problems, postnatal mental health, postnatal physical health, sexuality, the huge shake up of your identity, your body, your mind (hormones are real fuckers), wifework and the distribution of labour and for some, regret- is only just beginning to find the light. And so it should. As I said, this shit matters. Motherhood is a feminist issue.
The whole experience has stripped me down and shaken up my values. I love my job, I care about my job, and I never thought for a second I’d not want to go back to work. I used to joke that I’d leave the maternity ward and go to the pub. But I would happily stay off to look after the baby. And the Daily Mail would write that shit as, “How Women Are Turning On their Careers for Babies”. Which is bullshit. I’m going back to work, and I’m not a different person. This is a new part of me, a new spoke on the wheel. It’s frustrating sometimes, exhausting often, but I never knew how easily it would come to love someone, to do those frustrating, exhausting things. How fulfulling it would feel to change a pooey nappy because it means I could kiss his toes and make him laugh, and how much joy I’d get in those tired hours. I had prepared myself for “not feeling it”. People warned me about it. After all, it makes sense. Here’s a person you’ve never met, you don’t really know, who, for a while, can’t give much back. It might take time to love them. And it did- about 10 hours. And since then my love has grown and grown to strain my heart against my chest, to spill into the world, to everyone in it.
And it frightens me. It terrifies me. Throughout pregnancy, I consciously tried not to connect. I felt at every stage I could lose it, and he could die. I tried to protect myself by keeping myself at a distance. Which is very hard when the distance goes as far as inside yourself. In the quieter moments with Robert on his nightshift I’d play him songs (him! It was him all along in there) and talk to him and feel his kicks in response. And it got harder and harder not to connect when I’d have my panicked morning frappucino (cold and caffeine, the perfect way to get your baby to move) and he’d give me a few pissed off kicks. But it was terror, almost constant terror.
I feel the same terror, mingled with bliss, never a hope of separating one from the other. I’ve sat, so many nights, with his downy head under my chin and cried over it. My fear of death has come back tenfold, because the absolute best case scenario is that I won’t see how my son’s life pans out. (Did my dad feel this way about us before he died anyway?) From both me and Robert, and through both me and Robert, there will come that inevitable terminal separation. Forever and forever from the one who I grew with my body. And that we will break his heart one day, and mine breaks over and over again.
Now my life seems to be measured in his days and weeks and months and years, and not my own. And it feels so very small. The grief is raw, and I try to centre myself. I grieve each clothes size, each little thing that was there that’s already gone- gone! forever! The way he’d sigh after finishing a bottle. Moro! Squealing with delight at Saturday in the Very Hungry Caterpillar. Not being able to reach Monkeys in his bouncy chair. Being so tiny, and now not so tiny. I used to think babies were hams. That’s the word I used- they’re angry and pink and wibbling. But every day! he does something new. He’s babbling now, giving us long lectures in his language we’re only beginning to understand. He rolled over this week and was so shocked he burst into tears. First, a second of silence, then he caught my eye and his lip began to wobble. I picked him up and called to Robert upstairs. This week, he also stroked a cat. He’s just noticing them, particularly fascinated by their hovering question mark tails. I held his hand- his tiny hand- and pressed it onto her fur. He unfurled his fist and began to laugh- a belly laugh (I understand that phrase now, as I held him he bellowed, and I understand that one, too). And it was utterly beautiful. This little moment of discovery in the world, and as near to death I feel I am sometimes, I am born, again.
That probably sounds evangelical, and I am, in a way. I can see why people worship their children.It’s okay to, as people. The problem is when we see them as extensions of ourselves, which they aren’t. From the second they’re born, they’re their own person. Which is frightening in itself, with all that being a person entails. I don’t know how I’m going to cope the first time someone’s horrible to him. When he’s hurt or disappointed. For the first few weeks I was afraid to take him to places I wasn’t sure were child friendly as I knew I’d disintegrate if I saw a tut, or someone mumbling about bloody kids. They’re part of our lives, part of our society. There are some places they don’t belong (we tried to take him to someone’s birthday dinner, thinking it’d be sedate, but I was on the train home 30 minutes later) but that’s okay.
Another reason why I cry is his childness makes me ache for mine. In as much as he makes me wonder and look at the world anew, my small self is huddled inside, nerves as exposed as my heart feels. When he cries- from hunger, or fear, or loneliness- I feel the fear and loneliness of my own childhood. I rush to make it right, to put arms around the lonely one, to wipe away the tears and soothe the fear. And now I feel every child’s fear and it means I can’t watch or read as much as I used to. It causes me physical pain. I find myself crying at the big things- news reports- and the small, FUCKING ADVERTS. (Fucking meerkat bastards). I feel like a layer of my skin has been sloughed off, and sometimes, I want the hardness back. Give me back my cynicism (it’s still there, somewhere). It’s agonising sometimes. Sometimes too much.
I’m not always walking around in a blissful daze. He can do my head in, too. The sheer relentlessness of it is a shock. This person (person!) is utterly dependent on you and it’s so daunting. And grinding. I miss the days of not worrying whether cot death has taken him (my head plays these awful scenarios, screaming), or worrying that something else will (please don’t take him, take me instead). Today, he was driving me up the wall. He’s going through a Baby Phase, you know, baby stuff. More of the mindblasting world to make sense of. I set my alarm so I could be there when he woke up (as Robert sleeps with him, not me, due to medication). He gave me this gorgeous smile and started kicking his legs excitedly and laughing. Which was a good start. And proceeded to go through the day refusing to nap, going on baby lectures, hating to be held, wanting to be held then hating it, lots of bottles, and a three hour battle to get him to sleep. Then he does that thing- that melty heart thing which is why you eventually don’t care, have a second wind and want the whiny exhaustion to last forever. A three hour bedtime and finally get him to lie down, pick up a book and he coos in anticipation, holds his hand out for me to hold, giggles and makes cute noises with rapt attention the whole way through. Then a few songs which he smiles at so much I gave up with his dummy. Lie next to him and he sleepily gazes into my eyes and rests his little hand on my cheek. What a babe. This was the book.
It’s given me more love for everyone, and unlikely allies have emerged. People I didn’t know really cared have been on the end of Twitter, Facebook, a phone, with blankets, toys, little hats, clothes. He’s bedecked in the love and the kindnesses of others, and it’s beautiful. He’s an adored and doted on nephew and grandchild. It’s given me a new love for my husband, too. He was amazing throughout my pregnancy, throughout the labour, and he’s a wonderful father. Utter, utter gentleness and love, and pride. Watching them together is a delight. Just him talking- about any old thing- makes Oisín giggle and whoop with delight. He smiles so broadly when he sees him, they adore each other. Robert’s better than me at taking him out, he shows him the world, shares with him so many things. He’s going to be the stay at home dad, and it’ll be hard. The whole stay at home thing isn’t set up for fathers. But what a role model he will be. He’s just a baby, just a child, but the world will try to teach him he’s a boy, and what a boy is supposed to be. And Robert will be there to teach him that a boy can be gentle, and kind, and loving, silly and emotional, as so many boys are, but told they shouldn’t be. He will grow up with the very best boy to teach him. And I hope I can do teach him well, too.
So, my little baby, when you can read, and if you ever read this, I love the hell out of you. Sorry for the sort of swear word but I’m sure you’ll have heard a lot of those by now. It’s because you’re half Irish, and this is our punctuation. And I’ll love you, whoever you are (and I’m getting an idea, my curious, giggly, reachy little Bean) and whatever you do. Nothing you do will ever make me not love you. You’re pretty ace. Now go back to sleep. xxx
PS: I don’t read trashmags anymore. They make me cry.
So, this is a two part blog, covering two different topics. For they are different! This blog will be about how that whole well thought out, “bipolar birth plan” worked out. And the second will be about new parenthood in general and the feeling of your skin being stripped off your body. It’s too much to cover in one blog.
First, thank you again! Always thanking you, you considerate bastards. Thank you for your emails, comments and congratulations. I haven’t responded because I only have one hand these days. My lap is marked Occupied, which makes it very difficult to blog. I do tweet a lot- you can find me over at ms_molly_vog. Twitter, like food, is a one handed affair. Add me!
How did that, “bipolar birth plan” work out? In short, it didn’t. Absolutely nothing went to plan, including the thing I took utterly for granted- my son exited via the sunroof and not my vagina. Lesson 1: Don’t have a plan!
The, “birth story” bit is largely for my benefit and it’s quite long! You can navigate thusly…
Part 3: How things are now, 11 weeks on.
Exit via the sunroof
I’d been booked for an induction on Thursday, but was so very unwilling. By that point, I was feeling unexpectedly traumatised from two sweeps. A sweep is when a midwife sticks her hand inside you and sweeps membranes away from your cervix to initiate, or speed up, labour. I had been pretty nervous about giving birth but was so fed up of being pregnant (I went to 41+6 in the end!) that I was sanguine about it. From the first sweep onwards, I found myself sobbing every day. I was so very desperate to go into labour naturally, with a longing that shocked me. I pushed the induction back to the Saturday.
On Thursday I started getting strong braxton hicks, though I didn’t know it then. I thought it was the real deal, and scoffed at the whole, “contractions are like your body being wrenched in half”. This was a piece of piss, but not piss-enough for me to sleep. I didn’t take my medication as I had images of me falling down the stairs in the dead of night and slurring in the back of a taxi, unable to properly understand what was happening. I wanted to be completely present.
On Friday, the real deal happened. Contractions, which, it turns out, are indeed pretty fucking painful. All day, on and off, then suddenly they ramped up in the night (I like to say triggered by my friend’s funny tweet. I told him it had made me go into labour and he didn’t believe me). Excitement, and relief! It was happening naturally! Soon I’d be in the labour ward huffing and puffing and purple and beautific and then waaah a scream and there we go, job’s a good ‘un. Of course it didn’t happen like that.
As I mentioned before, I was with a team who care for women who are having home births, and also women with mental health conditions. Gold star service, and I can’t thank them enough. You get a pager number to call when you’re in labour. All I was having at the time were contractions- no dramatic, The Shining-esque gush, a pitiful bloody show (more a fecking matinee). But they were pretty bad, and we were timing them. Lots of dashing around, packing, tea-making, laughing (me), swearing (both). When they were 2 minutes apart, we tried the pager number. And tried. And tried. And it wouldn’t connect. (This is thanks to giffgaff, not hospital). Rang the labour ward and they caught one of the Brierley midwives on shift, and she made her way over, an excruciating hour wait. She arrived, examined me (1 of ELEVEN exams to come)- 1cm dilated! Did some breathing exercises with me, which helped. Lots of arse-in-air, head-on-hands. Had a shower (ace).. I couldn’t go to the labour ward until I was 4cm, so off she went apologetically and I stayed at home. Had a glass of wine, attempted to watch Wayne’s World on Netflix. Had a bath (useless) with Robert rubbing my back, tried (ahaha) to sleep, while Robert slept soundly next to me, my rage at him mounting with the pain. SLEEPING BASTARD.
Day 2 of no sleep.
Saturday morning, the day of my scheduled induction, and I’d been having frequent contractions for about 18 hours. I couldn’t take any more. I rang the labour ward and told them I was coming. I knew I wasn’t dilated enough. I couldn’t phone a taxi, I felt horrifically vulnerable. I was mooing, sweaty, smelly. The thought of trying to hold myself together in the back of a strange man’s car made me weep. In desperation I asked Robert to call my friend Ellie who had a car and to beg her to take me to hospital, Thankfully, she was free, and she did. At 10am, a shock of pain over every bump, staring out the window, past Norwood, Tulse Hill, finally Herne Hill, the crawl towards the hospital. Two hefty suitcases- one for the baby, and one for me, since we were booked in for a long stay. Trying to find somewhere to park, a good luck wave and we were in. Robert in his good luck Word Up t-shirt. (Incidentally, Word Up by Cameo is a song we listened to a lot when Oisín was in the womb. Consequently, it’s one of the only things that is guaranteed to make him stop crying. Proof:
Thankfully, Kate was on the morning shift (after being on call the night before and coming out at 2am! Trooper) and congratulated me on holding out for so long and asked if I wanted an epidural. FUCK YES. Always say this to this. I think I would have been more hardy had I not slept for now more than 2 days and she was fully aware of that. I also didn’t take any medication in this time, worrying I’d be out of it for labour (and they said later they don’t think I could have given informed consent to a c-section- something to think about, mental friends). Until then, though, I had gas and air. Gas and air is a beautiful thing. I huffed more than I really needed, giggling my arse off while the room was set up. Music on (we had a birth playlist- that didn’t work out, either), snacks out, and Kate went to change into her scrubs.
The epidural was pretty frightening. I was giggling (part gas and air, part euphoria as I’d waited an hour and half for it). Siting the needle was quite scary. I was too afraid to move but still making quips, until the anaesthesia went in. It’s a feeling I can’t describe, as though half your body is being chalked out of existence. A wave of panic swept over me, a feeling that I was losing control. I held onto Robert’s arm, pleading eyes and I knew that was pretty difficult for him. Once it was in, though, it was great.
Then became the second of FUCKING ELEVEN vaginal examinations, each more hideous than the last. You can refuse them, by the way, but there was no reason for me to. I sensed I wasn’t really progressing, and my waters hadn’t broken yet. But the baby was fine. I was on continuous monitoring so I could see that.
To speed things up, they decided to break my waters. They use a little hook, and the first attempt didn’t work. The second did, and from there things became simultaneously frightening and really boring.
They broke, not in a gush but a trickle onto the giant maternity pad I was lying on. Clear, so that was good. Things weren’t so good with us, though. The baby’s (baby? There was really a baby in there, all along?!) heart rate became to drop on and off. My temperature and pulse were soaring- my pulse was so high they were having trouble telling if it was his heartrate or mine. I start to feel pretty unwell and my catheter is tested, there’s protein in my wee. I had various blood tests- my veins are terrible, so this was more painful than the contraction I was no longer feeling. Many, many, each making me more hysterical than the last. I was losing my good humour as they stuck a needle into my thigh in the end. Off the test goes for pre-eclampsia. It was negative- I had an infection and so now did my baby. It might have sneaked in when my waters were broken. It’s called chorioamnionitis- an infection of the amniotic fluid, but infuriatingly they never told me what it was infected with.
Another IV- this time, antibiotics. They put me on a Picotin drip to speed up the contractions to get the Bean out. Hours and hours pass. More and more examinations. I am progressing though- in the end, I actually made it up to 10cm, but there was a cervical lip in the way, and Oisin was twisting and turning inside, going from his perfect LOA position to who the fuck knows. But he’s getting distressed. His heart rate plummets and I find myself flat on my back, surrounded by doctors, crash button hit, preparing to be taken for general anaesthetic for a category 1 section. Robert is in scrubs, and I am sobbing. But it recovers. Calm comes back.
I’m not allowed to eat or drink in case I need an emergency section. Robert puts a mattress down in the bathroom and goes to sleep. I can’t sleep- my utter, ridiculous dependency on my medication fucks me again- so I try to watch a film on my laptop and chat to the midwife- the second one- Alex. More doctors come and look up my vagina. At this point I’d kick them in the balls if I could just move my deadweight legs. But I’m not in pain, except for the odd breakthrough where I use gas and air (and I was huffing it anyway to amuse myself- Robert took a sneaky few puffs when the midwife left the room).
Midwife number three comes on shift. My exhaustion is beginning to flatten me, on day 3 of no sleep- she prepares cold towels for me and rubs my arm and chats to me in the low light of the labour suite. I switch positions often- my left side being best for labour but worse for me due to the drips and epidural, which I am terrified of coming out. I can feel the tightening of contractions, know there is a black world of pain beyond the epidural. I play with the bed controls to try and sit up and feel pressure down below- hoping, hopes dashed- that I’d need to push soon. I hadn’t eaten or drank in 15 hours and felt shaky from hunger. Fluids were being pumped into me and I could sip water but lack of sugar coupled with intense tiredness was killing me. I’d started to vomit at about 8cm so that added to the fun.
They got the baby on an ultrasound and he was back to back (was nice to see him one last time on the ultrasound- I can’t believe it was him in there, all along). The last little bit wasn’t going to come away, and his heart rate was dipping, up, and down, from stress and sickness. The consultant came in and told me we had to do an emergency cesarean. I cried, and snapped at him when he started talking about, “normal birth”. One third of women have these, it’s normal. I felt weighed down by failure and utter terror. Robert was petrified too, kissing me, apologising for all the wrong things he’s done, for not being perfect, thinking, and me too, that I’d die, and our baby would die. I signed some paper work outlining all the risks, each one I felt certain would happen to me. And then I was wheeled to theatre.
It was a bit of shock, the white white lights away from the timeless darkness of the labour suite, the busyness of the place compared to the intimacy of before. I saw it all flat on my back. They put my arms in a crucifix position and topped up the epidural. They tested it by seeing if I could feel the coldness on my abdomen. They described what was going to happen, but I was gibbering from terror. I’d had few of the warned side effects from the epidural up until this point- a mild headache, that was it- but the top up made me shiver uncontrollably. I think I was in shock, too, thinking that this can’t be happening. Robert was next to me, holding my hand, telling me he loved me.
They asked me if it was okay to have the radio on- it was, I can’t remember what was playing, something cheerful. The screen was raised so I couldn’t see (I kind of wish I could have! I watched a video of another c-section on Youtube to see what had happened) and away they went.
This was Sunday morning. I tried talking to Robert but, well, it’s hard not to be distracted by someone opening up your insides. Tugging, pressure, but no pain. Then he was out- I didn’t see him, which I regret. No cry, not for a minute or so. He was whisked away and then he cried. Relief! He was born on 1st March at 11.24am, 25 hours after I’d gone into the hospital. 7lbs 12oz of loveliness.
I couldn’t move, obviously, so Robert up to see him. He said he kind of looked at him, like he knew who he was. After a minute or two they bought him over to me. And I wish I remember what I felt the first time I saw him, but I don’t. I don’t remember these photos being taken. I look happy- I’m sure I was. I was just so exhausted by this point.
They stitched me up and then we were taking our separate ways. No immediate skin to skin or breastfeeding, which even now makes me want to cry. But he had to go to SCBU- we were still suffering from an infection and he needed antiobiotics. Robert went with him, and, so soon, already, we were separated. Off to the recovery ward I went, feeling overwhelmed and a bit confused. I had a baby.
So, I’m in the recovery ward feeling like I’ve been hit by a bus. They told me to rest (3 nights, 4 days without sleep now), which I didn’t. After about an hour, they bought Oisín back. With some help from midwife Sue, we breastfeed and had a bit of a cuddle, and it was lovely.
The bipolar birth plan had specified some key things, remember. Thing 1: private room. Thing 2: Robert to stay with me. Thing 3: I get some rest. Thing 4: Minimum 3 day stay.
There’s a fundamental flaw in the whole plan- you’re never alone, and you’re not allowed to either leave the ward nor take the baby off it.
Thing 1 we got. It was a tiny side room at the end of the (huge) postnatal ward. But there was nowhere for Robert to sleep, not even a blanket for him. I don’t expect hospitals to be hotels, but this was in our plan, we were being forced into this. So Robert called his brother for help (and this is why I mention it- what if we’d had no family, no friends to help?), and he came with an inflatable bed and a blanket for him. I sat paralysed, bleeding and cathaterted up, and not in the mood for visitors (who I banned totally from the hospital). Oisín was in a plastic cot in wheels, like a chicken in an incubator. Twice a day, he’d be wheeled up to SCBU for his IV dose of antibiotics. We’d be staying until he was clear of infection, which could be up to 10 days.
The first night as parents was hell. People kept commenting on Facebook how amazing the first night must be, when we were both in tears and feeling as though we were going mad. We were interrupted CONSTANTLY by staff, for various reasons. Checks, OBs, intrusions. The whole, “stay here to get rest” part of the plan was dreadfully ill thought out. Because a) we were always having someone knock at the door and I was woken up often and b) two people in the room are still in a room with a crying baby, and it’ll wake both of us up. None of us got any rest. I ended up, even with my medication, getting only four hours of sleep after now 5 days without any. Robert was exhausted, too. Nobody ever knocked, including the cleaning staff and food people, while I lay on bed, tearful, with my breasts hanging out struggling to breastfeed. I was confused every time the baby cried, a totally alien sound to me. I kept forgetting I had a baby, and I was paralysed from the epidural and couldn’t get up to help him. It took me a few days to comfortably lift him from the cot.
Perinatal psychiatry discharged me after the second night on the ward, with no concerns. They were bollocked by me and Robert, who told them we couldn’t understand how they thought that trapping someone on a ward, in a room, with constant intrusions, was in any way going to let them rest. There was a bit of back and forth, but basically, the psychiatrist admitted it wasn’t the best plan. Once I left, my nurse would come to see me weekly (now fortnightly).
I couldn’t leave anyway- we had to stay until Oisin was free of infection. I was on fairly heavy duty myself- a regime of antibiotics, nightly clexane injections and diamorphine for the pain. The pain was fine, as long as I kept on top of it. On the second day, I bounced around like Willy Wonka and sorely (so very sorely) paid for it by being immobilised the next day.
I had reasoned with myself that the plus side of being on the postnatal ward so long was that I could get lots of breastfeeding support. Hooray! But the support was crap. Hooroo.
The first time we breastfed was, as I mentioned, in the recovery ward, after being separated for more than an hour. A midwife in the breastfeeding cafe later said this might be a reason we had problems, which made me cry. But that time wasn’t too difficult, and it felt lovely. It made me feel spacey and relaxed. I chased that ease and feeling for the next three weeks, before giving up.
My supply was fine, great, in fact. The problems we were having were that it was hard to get him to latch, and I was in a lot of pain from the surgery and struggled to find a comfortable position. What I should have done, and what nobody ever told me I could do or helped me to do, was to basically stay in bed naked and do skin and skin a lot, to let him find his way, and to express and feed him that. Instead it was a few hellish, uncomfortable days of increasingly feeling like a complete failure and giving him formula in begged bottles.
I asked for a lot of help on the postnatal ward, which mostly consisted of people shoving my breasts into his screaming mouth. The last time I asked for help was on our last night there. I’ve found out in my notes (which I got in my “traumatic birth” debrief) what happened behind the scenes.
The night shift midwife came on and I asked if we could have a bit of support breastfeeding. I wanted one last good go at it before we were leaving. She said to set an alarm for the baby’s next feed, which was in 45 minutes, so I did. 45 minutes passed, the alarm went off and I wandered out to let them know. Over the next hour or so I tried again and again, while the baby got increasingly hysterical from hunger. They kept telling me someone would be with me, and an hour later, they came in. They told me they’d been on holiday so didn’t know these “new” positions (I’d asked about rugby hold, which was the comfiest position we’d tried) and only knew “cradle hold”. Which we tried, but it was futile because he was screaming his head off, and then started kicking me in the scar. I was fairly pissed off and exhausted and said to leave us alone. One of the worst feelings in the world is trying to feed your baby, and not being able to. I was a bit rude, but no more than any new, exhausted mum.
The next day, without warning, while I was quietly sitting on the bed with the baby, reading magazines, my perinatal nurse walked in. She said the midwife (who hadn’t once approached me herself) had rang them to tell her to come straight away because I was, “hyperactive, chaotic and abrupt”. It should be said that previous night I’d slept better than any other- I was asleep by 1am, after I’d made a cup of tea. I guess, though, because I have bipolar disorder, that was, “hyperactive and chaotic”. As for abrupt- I’d barely slept for 10 days. Robert was pretty abrupt, too, but because he’s a man without a diagnosis, I guess he was just “forthright” instead.
I have my maternity notes, as I’d had a traumatic birth debrief. I’d thought the reason the midwife had called the perinatal team was because of my “abrupt” manner towards the (useless, rude) maternity assistant. Possibly, as they’d written down that I was very angry and “not being patient” (waiting for an hour more than your baby needs while he screams will make one impatient)- but what was more significant is that she’d noted- twice- that I had self harm scars. SIX YEAR OLD self harm scars- CLEARLY not new, and most clearly not new since the last fecking time she’d noted them. One of her notes was that I wasg with the baby with self harm scars. A new mother, holding her baby! I wore a cardigan anytime I left my room, but was wearing a vest top in my room, as it was roasting.
It’s clear what’s inferred, and it’s clear why she called my perinatal nurse. It’s that she didn’t trust me with my baby, because I had a diagnosis and scars, and because if you have those things, no matter what you do, your behaviour will be pathologised.
The perinatal nurse was, thankfully, bemused. I was so clearly fine- tired, grumpy and desperate to go home- but fine. She asked Robert if he was worried and if I’d been okay. Because you can’t trust mental people to tell the truth. Nor women. Robert said I was fine but that he was angry about the constant interruptions and had been going mad himself, and that we just wanted to go home now. But what if he hadn’t been there? Would I be on my way to the Mother and Baby Unit? (One of my midwife team agreed with my perspective on this, and said sadly, I was always going to face these issues from ignorant people).
The nurse had no concerns. And I have to emphasise here for anyone going, “but, but, but” that I was geniunely not acting in unusual way at all- I was tired, but, apart from to the maternity assistant- in good humour and polite. There was no reason for them to call. The experience shook me and I felt very upset. I felt like I’d been doing really well and realised that, forever, I was going to be judged upon having scars and diagnosis and that this midwife won’t be the last person to think I was a danger to my child. I place part of the blame for why I failed with breastfeeding at that midwife’s feet. After that, I was worried about showing any sort of annoyance or impatience in case they thought I was mad and called the perinatal team on me again. And ultimately, I did fail. I was with the midwives postnatally for 4 weeks and on the third, getting help every time but not cracking it, the baby hungry and me exhausted, and sick, sick, sick of being touched, I said, enough. Stop. I had only intermittently managed it with him and was expressing every hour. I’d had it. I still feel like an utter failure for it, I still grieve for not breastfeeding, but I was beginning to dread every time he woke up. It hasn’t affected my bond with at all- I don’t think I could be more bonded with him if I put him back in my uterus. I adore him.
But me and baby both infection free meant we were discharged later that day, hooray! We played him this and both cried:
Robert’s brother drove us home- it was a full moon that night.
So, eleven weeks in and I’m good. I’m still trying to make my peace with failing to breastfeed, but he’s thriving, which helps. He’s amazing- I’ve become one of those boring bastards who Facebooks their child’s every fart, but they are such lovely farts. He’s a smiley, happy, beautiful little thing.
(Despite having to attend 2 funerals before he’s even 2 months old- the first of my granny, the second of Robert’s. From 3 great-grannies to 1, within 2 weeks).
Mentally, I’m okay. I’ve been having a bit of resurgence of my anxiety. I worry about things happening to him and get some frightening intrusive thoughts. My death anxiety has come back, because a baby makes you even more acutely aware of your own mortality than before. I’m coping with it, though. I’m struggling a lot with my medication and wish I was off it but my team don’t support that in the slightest right now, and I’m worried about doing anything, “wrong”. Robert does all the night feeds, as I’m too drowsy. I did try, and dropped the bottle, and him. I feel quite useless sometimes, but coming off it will entail brutal insomnia so I guess now isn’t the right time. I see my perinatal nurse every fortnight and she’s been hugely encouraging and supportive. I’m glad she’s been there. The midwives who were with me pre, during and postnatally were also amazing, and I’m making them a nice card (because I’m 5).
And c section recovery wasn’t too bad. Pain and stiffness and weird bladder numbness but mostly fine now.
I have a whole ‘nother blog about parenthood, so I’ll end this one now at- fuck me, 4500 words! I bet your screenreader is steaming. Here’s some cute baby pics as a reward for sticking with it!