Something To Live For: My Postnatal Depression and How the NHS Saved Us
by Laura Canty
This is a book about hope.
It’s the story of my family’s struggle with mental illness after the birth of our son, but above all it’s about how the love of good friends and family, and our incredible NHS, brought me back from the brink of a life-threatening illness.
My story is similar to that of millions. I’m not a celebrity; I am an ordinary new mum in an ordinary life. My husband and I both work five days a week, we discuss what we’re going to have for dinner most days and we eat out or have a takeaway probably once or twice a week. I sensibly married a builder so we live in our renovated, mid-30s, semi-detached house in a quiet street, and our bin day is Thursday.
My pregnancy was on the whole totally fine. I had morning sickness for about 12 weeks, a brief respite and then suffered with indigestion and heartburn until our son was born. At my 38-week check-up, I was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia and taken straight to the hospital. About 12 hours later, after induction and an emergency caesarean section, our baby boy was born. We always knew he was going to be called Arthur after his great grandfather.
When Arthur was about four weeks old, my mental health started to go downhill rapidly. I stopped being able to function and I was basically scared of everything, not least of all our son.
In this book I want to show you how I went from a fairly confident new mum to someone who couldn’t sleep, wouldn’t go out, and couldn’t bear to look at her baby. As painful as it is, I want to take you inside my head and help you understand what it feels like to have totally fallen apart, malfunctioned, become broken. I was diagnosed by our GP with postnatal depression and anxiety. The local Perinatal Mental Health Team tried to treat me at home for eight weeks until, one day, I decided to kill myself. It was at this point that I was referred for one of the precious beds at a Mother and Baby Unit (MBU). Not many people know about MBUs because they’re not something we tend to talk about. They are psychiatric units specially set up to treat mothers with postnatal-related mental health illness while keeping their babies with them.
I was lucky enough to be allocated a bed shortly after referral and it was here that I was fortunate enough to receive accelerated, specialist care for my illness. But many do not. In fact, many don’t receive any treatment at all. This might be because they are never diagnosed – either through shame, fear or just because postnatal illness was missed by their health professional – or because there isn’t a bed available for them at a time when they need it, close enough to where they live.
The thing about MBUs is that they give you 24/7 care. They allow you to recover the sleep debt that contributes to so many cases of postnatal illness, while the staff care for your baby. They ensure you get the correct medication, changing your drugs quickly while monitoring you until the right mix is found. They also offer talking therapies with a psychologist to give you coping strategies and a routine of self-care for when you’re discharged. In my case, I even received physiotherapy to help with an old knee injury to ensure I could keep up running. The care and attention I got saved my life. But here’s the thing: there are only around 151 beds in 19 of these units in England, and the average stay is approximately 8 weeks. That’s why I consider myself lucky. (Incidentally, there are only 2 units in Scotland and none at all in Wales and Ireland.)
In this book I’m going to take you into the hospital and give you a glimpse of the staff who work tirelessly, night and day, to mend broken people. I’m going to show you the other patients, whose stories were just as extraordinary – and ordinary – as my own. I’m going to take you through the day-to-day life of the unit, the treatments, the visitors and how I started believing in myself enough to be allowed ‘home leave’ and eventually be discharged. Yes, there is no doubt this hospital saved my life, no doubt at all. It was and continues to be an amazing facility staffed by the most special people – somewhere that will always bring a tear to my eye when I think of what it did for Arthur and me. I hope that by the time you have finished reading this book, it will hold a special place for you, too. As I was so grateful for the help I received, I now volunteer with the NHS, supporting women going through the same devastating but frighteningly common experience as me. The message I get time after time is that postnatal depression (PND) is one of the few areas of mental health we are still not talking about. Take a look around. Mothers all around you are suffering from PND without you realising it. Some of them are ill enough to be admitted to hospital. But many of them are getting up every day, putting their makeup on and pretending everything is okay. They are keeping quiet because, while it’s increasingly acceptable to say you’re not okay, it’s still not acceptable to say you want to kill yourself or you want to give your baby away. The worst shame I felt about PND wasn’t admitting I was one of the one-in-five women who suffer from it, that I wanted to end my life, or even that I wanted harm to come to my baby. The worst shame was from the ripple effect I had on my world. The stress and torment I caused my husband, my family and my friends – that I will never be able to take away or find any suitable way of apologising for. Coupled with this is the knowledge that I cost the NHS thousands and thousands of pounds in diagnosing me, treating me, and housing and feeding me for nearly three months in one of their most specialist facilities.
It took a small army of people – professional and personal – to put me back together and I have made it my mission to spend the rest of my life giving back. By sharing my story with whoever wants to hear it, I feel in some way I’m working towards ‘normalising’ PND and making it more acceptable for other women to admit to having it and, therefore, helping them receive the treatment they need rather than suffering in silence. In turn I guess this makes it worth all the suffering I have caused. I figure that something good has to come of me dragging the people in my little world through the most painful six months of their lives. All I kept asking for when I was in the depths of the illness was hope. Hope that I would get better, hope that we would be a family again, hope that this wouldn’t always be the way things were. If I couldn’t have hope, then there really was no point in being alive. I can’t count the number of nurses, doctors, friends, family members and even strangers who told me the same thing: ‘You will get better’. But all I could think was, How do you know? I knew they had seen other people get better, but what if I was the one who didn’t? I would beg anyone who would listen: ‘Show me a me-shaped person who has got through this and I will believe there is hope.’ They simply couldn’t. My own hope, therefore, is that by writing this book I will expose my story to the largest number of people I can and that maybe I can be at least one other sufferer’s ‘me-shaped person’, offering them the hope that they will get better.
I’m fed up of seeing photographs of young families apparently having the time of their lives. Maybe they are in that moment, but I can guarantee it’s only half the picture. These photos were part of my downfall, showing me how things ‘should be’ once you have a baby and not in any way related to my truth. I would obsess over them and constantly ask myself, ‘Why me?’. I want to show that PND doesn’t discriminate over who it affects, it’s more common than you think and there is absolutely no shame in admitting that it got you. By baring my soul, I want to explain what motherhood is like for some women. I hate the thought of anyone else going through this. I know that hearing my story will not necessarily make their suffering less, but it might make them feel less alone. It was the psychologist in hospital who suggested that I start to write some of my story down. I was constantly asking, ‘Why me?’ so she suggested it as a way of processing what was happening. Putting this book together from those notes and all the information I could glean from WhatsApp messages, calendar entries, photographs and conversations with my friends and family has allowed me to come up with a timeline of events from Arthur’s birth to me being discharged from hospital. As I’ve relived those moments – the suicidal thoughts, the fear and the exhaustion – I’ve cried, smirked and felt the goose bumps all over again. It’s helped me not only to realise how poorly I was but how much I really do care about this stuff.
Postnatal depression is the worst, most evil illness I have ever had the misfortune to come across, and although I know it’s not realistic to think that it won’t happen to another mother, if there is any way I can make it less horrible, less exhausting, less stressful, less lonely and less hopeless, I will. Oh, and I should say that many of the names have been changed and a couple of people have been combined into characters. I would have loved to call out the amazing staff and patients on The Chamomile Suite, but for obvious reasons I need to respect people’s personal and professional privacy. And ‘amazing’ doesn’t even cut it. They helped me to heal, to learn to love my baby and to understand that, no matter how broken you are, there is always something to live for. I hope you are all well and realise that not only were you part of my journey, but I will never forget you for the kindness and compassion you showed me. All of my close friends and family have been depicted as who they are and, in a tiny way, this is a massive thank you to you for being part of my army. You were there, you were with us and you were part of getting me back to the wife, daughter, sister and friend that you all know. I love each and every one of you, very much.