(Me and my little princess)
Sometimes the hardest thing about being a writer is writing about real feelings, about your reality. Once the words are out there, you’re opening yourself up to merciless scrutiny and possible criticism. But I’ve decided that in order to be free of the most horrible experience of my life, I have to write about it and share it with you. And I’m so happy that I’m finally in a good enough place to do it.
(written Wednesday 22 June 2016)
It is one o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon. All is quiet, now. We’ve spent the whole morning talking to a lovely woman who is interested in our story of how we, two parents with various degrees of Cerebral Palsy, found the whole experience of having Alison and whether we would have any advice for the so-called medical professionals if they ever come across a case like ours again.
We are not a ‘case’, of course. We are people. Real people with real feelings. Talking about how we were doubted when we had Alison and when we brought her home first is always draining. As a person who loves to bottle things up and have that bottle explode at the most inopportune times, talking openly and honestly about what is going on in my head is something I hate to do.
So why now? Well, maybe it’s because no matter how hard I try to deny it, the fact that I had postnatal depression will always be part of my identity. I will never forget how I was made to be so afraid that I had to go through it alone, even though I know that some friends tried to help me. They couldn’t of course. I had to help myself.
I was nine weeks pregnant when I self-referred to a physiotherapist and an occupational therapist. I wanted to be the best for my baby, I wanted to improve. I wanted to show people that I was capable. Deep down, I wasn’t sure if I would be. The last time I’d cared for a baby was when my little sister Alex, six years younger than me, was born. Dressing and feeding a doll wasn’t going to be the same thing, I knew that.
Anxiety lingered where excitement should’ve resided. Our Public Health Nurse started visiting when I was twelve weeks pregnant, asking questions that I didn’t know the answer to. How are you going to feed the baby? Change it? Carry it? (Apparently my plan to wheel the child around the house in a buggy was inappropriate; a sling was more suitable. How was I going to get the baby in and out of a sling?) It didn’t really matter – they had come up with a solution, they knew best. Sure what did I know? I wasn’t a medical expert, like they were.
But if they were medical experts, then I was treated like a medical marvel. We’ve never come across this sort of situation, I was told countless times. What did they mean, this ‘sort of situation?’ Surely I was just a normal woman, having a baby? I was told that I’d have to be under general anaesthetic to be sectioned, and it was only the week before the section when we discussed our concerns with the anaesthetist that a spinal was considered. Then there was the apparent issue of me being left alone with the baby. I spent months trying to illustrate how, if I got help with basic tasks such as bottle making, washing and cooking, being alone would not be a big deal. I later heard about how everybody was apprehensive, watching me with bated breath, expecting me to fail.
Alison Mary Fitzgerald was born on the 9th February 2012 at 11.52am, weighing a sizeable 8lbs 4oz. She was, and remains, the most beautiful person I’d ever met. As I held her in my arms I was blown away by her huge blue eyes, her physical strength and her flawless, unblemished skin. Immediately after the birth the lactation consultant showed me how to breastfeed. I hadn’t really considered breastfeeding, nor had I any interest in it, but Alison took to it easily and I watched her ‘help herself’ it occurred to me that if I could do it, then I would always be useful. Even with my horrible, mangled body I would still be useful. Even if I couldn’t do anything else for her, I could do this. And if I was her main source of food, then no-one could take her away from me.
Warped thinking, yes, I know. But I wasn’t thinking straight at this stage anyway.
I was a fog of hormones, crying from hormones and tiredness. But finally, everything was in place. We became claustrophobic in that small hospital room, the three of us, and by Monday, all I wanted to do was go home. There was no medical reason why this couldn’t happen. John Paul was staying with a friend and that morning, it was just me and Alison in the hospital room. I looked into the little cot and sang ‘Baby, now that I’ve found you’ to her, studying her little hands, her thick head of hair. I promised her there and then that I’d always do my best by her, that I’d always love her. just as I was doing this the anaesthesist came in, grinning.
‘Do you remember calling me a legend last Thursday?’ he asked. ‘I recorded it in case you don’t!’ He checked my stitches, which were healing nicely. ‘So are you off today? There’s no reason why you can’t. You’re recovering well.’ My heart soared. The ward manager agreed.
‘You’re doing really well,’ she said, ‘and we need your bed. What time is your husband coming in?’
‘Ah, soon,’ I said, packing my belongings. ‘Can’t wait to go home!’ But I was nervous too. I’d never handled a newborn baby before, and here I was, her primary caregiver, and like so many first-time mums I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.
The trouble was that I wasn’t like other first time mums.
I was just after feeding Ali when the head midwife came in. ‘I’m going home today, aren’t I?’ I said excitedly, gesturing at the half –packed suitcases on my bed. The midwife smiled, her lips pursed and shook her head.
‘Not today,’ she said. ‘You see, we have… concerns that you might be a danger to your baby, that you might drop or hurt her. What we’ll have to do is ring your social worker, your public health nurse and the Centre for Independent Living again and just verify what supports you’ll be getting, see if they think you’re ready to go home.’
‘But I’ve already done all that,’ I cried, my words an indecipherable screech. ‘Everything’s organised. I spent my whole pregnancy getting everything ready. How can you say we’re not ready? I can’t believe this is happening…’
The midwife shook her head. ‘I can’t understand what you are saying,’ she said. ‘Can you take out your phone and text out what you’re saying, like we agreed last week?’
Tears fell out of my eyes as I looked at the perfect sleeping baby beside me. I could hurt you, I thought to myself. I shook my head dismissively and instead rang John Paul, not letting Alison out of my sight for a second.
‘You have to take her,’ I sobbed down the phone. ‘There’s no point. They won’t let me take her home. You take her, you look after her. I’m obviously the problem, so you take her.’
A startled and breathless John Paul burst into the hospital room fifteen minutes later. ‘All right?’ he said casually, looking at the nurse. ‘Sarah said that you won’t let us home with Alison…’
‘Oh no, that’s not what we said at all,’ the midwife gushed. ‘We merely wanted to make sure that you two would be fully supported when you got home. So the Public Health Nurse will be out to ye every morning…’ I waited for John Paul to protest angrily, but he remained calm. ‘And she’ll be a great help, no doubt. We’ve also ordered Sarah a cloth sling which she can use to carry Alison in her wheelchair. It’s sixty euro, so…’
‘I’ll get that,’ John Paul said confidently, although I knew by his reaction he’d no idea where it’d come from. ‘And all going well, we’re going home tomorrow?’
‘Of course,’ the midwife said, although I felt like a royal idiot at this stage.
Getting home, away from the maternity hospital, felt surreal. We arrived at our house where my P.A. had decorated the house with ‘It’s a girl’ signs. Our family was waiting inside, armed with presents for me and Alison. There was even lasagne, and cake from friends. It was lovely. But I still felt like crap, as if I’d escaped from prison and that at any minute the midwife would come and try to take me back.
And so I began the journey of motherhood constantly feeling like an imposter. As those early days wore on, I began to feel tired. The physical effort of breastfeeding took its toll, but I persevered nonetheless, determined to do it. It took me forty-five minutes to do a nappy change and outfit change, and the fact that Alison had reflux and spewed during each nappy change didn’t make the process any faster.
My aunt informed me that now that Ali was born, I would always chart life events through the life of my child.
Alison was eight weeks old when I started to feel odd. I wouldn’t say miserable, and I didn’t think I was depressed. But I definitely didn’t feel like myself. I put it down to exhaustion, physical and emotional, as well as recovering from, as my aunt put it, major surgery.
One night, when John Paul was at work, I sat looking at Alison in her buggy. She was crying frantically and I was bent over her, ready to pick her up. Suddenly I felt light-headed and the room started spinning. All I could see was Alison’s head smashing against the floor, blood splattering everywhere. They were right, I thought with trepidation, I can’t do this. I’m going to hurt her. I phoned my friend, and when she arrived I was holding Alison in my arms, shaking with the relief that she was okay, and that I hadn’t hurt her.
But one day I will, I thought, and they will take her off me for sure. It’s only a matter of time.
I say ‘one night,’ but in truth, there were many, many nights like this. And if it weren’t for this friend, I don’t know if I’d be writing this blog right now. She saved me from myself more times than I can count.
As part of my bail conditions, the Public Health Nurse came nearly every day, for nearly six months. We would try to look together, calm, pretend to know what we were doing. However, Alison had severe reflux which gave the Public Health Nurse the perfect excuse to drop by, sometimes twice a day, often unexpectedly, to weigh her. The house could be a tip. I could be wrapped in my purple and white bathrobe, curdled milk encrusted in my hair. To this day I firmly believe that Ali picked up on my nervousness, which in turn exacerbated her reflux to the point where she was throwing up whole feeds. She also had colic, but that was nothing compared to the pressure I felt to show people that I was able, capable.
‘Do you think it’s a cow’s milk allergy?’ I asked one day, as my heart ripped in two watching Ali spew another feed over yet another newly changed outfit. The Public Health Nurse smiled and waved her hand dismissively.
‘I doubt it,’ she said. ‘Do you know how rare that is?’
By Friday of that week, I’d had enough of this shit and brought Ali to the doctor, demanding a letter for the A&E in Mullingar, that I wasn’t going to be fobbed off any longer. It was the June Bank Holiday of 2012 and the hottest weekend of the year. We spent it in Mullingar hospital where the doctor finally prescribed Ali Nutramigen, a soya-based formula. I felt like kissing his feet in gratitude. Between the Saturday and the Monday Ali gained four hundred grammes and the heart-wrenching colic dissipated instantly. The colour came back to her face and she became a happy baby, full of chat and smiles.
‘You see?’ my husband said as we came home from the hospital. ‘You are a good mother. You know exactly what you’re doing.’
I closed my eyes tightly and desperately wished it were true.
I went back to work in August 2012, for fifteen hours a week. Fifteen hours a week filled with anxiety, wondering how she was. Fifteen hours a week that I had to hand her over to someone else. Some days I would look forward to the break, until Alison left the office with the childminder. I knew I couldn’t have it both ways, but it was still so hard. It’s something I still struggle with, but I suppose every mother does, to some degree.
It was around this time that a horrible, mean voice moved into my headspace, and I was feeling too low and vulnerable to tell it to fuck off. Whoever this voice was, he/she/it was intent on destroying me. It was the voice that told me that I was going to drop Alison whenever I picked her up. The same voice told me that Alison was not safe in my care, that she would resent me as she got older because I wasn’t a normal mum. If I spilled something or knocked something over, the voice would never fail to criticise.
Alison turned one on 9th February 2013, and I’ve never felt relief like it before or since. Relief that I hadn’t caused her any serious harm or injury. Relief that she was home with us, celebrating her birthday in the company of friends and family. Relief that the first year was over. But I also felt anger. Angry that I had lost so much enjoyment with her because I was constantly worried about what others thought of me and my parenting skills. Angry that I would never be good enough for this little girl, no matter how hard I tried.
As Ali bent over her birthday cake and grabbed the flame, burning her little hand, I burst into floods of tears in front of my friends and family.
‘Don’t worry,’ my dad said, hugging me tightly. ‘Her hand is fine. She didn’t burn it too badly.’ I looked up at him and smiled, relieved that he didn’t know the real reason for my tears. Ali hadn’t been afraid to grasp that candle; she’d been strong and fearless. I’d felt that way too when I was pregnant. Now, all I felt was constantly afraid and so, so useless.
And my biggest fear was that somebody would guess how I was feeling, and threaten to take my little girl away from me. So I stayed silent, plastered on a smile and threw myself into the monotony of work and my daily routine.
I started to have thoughts of suicide, as they say, when Ali was eighteen months.
I’d no intentions of going through with anything, but I had it all carefully plotted out in my head, just as a back-up plan. Knowing it was there made me feel safe, happy even. (Don’t worry, there is no backup plan now. If there was there would be no way that I would even mention it on a blog).
John Paul and I would have a row, and I would storm out of the house, vowing never to come back. Sometimes I would take pills with me. Sometimes I would storm out and walk around for hours. I would come back. John Paul would say that I needed help, but we would both agree that we could not live under the scrutiny of nurses and social workers again.
He was tired, as was I. tired, and alone. So, so alone.
We moved house in 2014, to a bigger house with a lovely garden and lots of storage. And, it seemed, mirrors everywhere. We had no mirrors in the last house we’d rented and I found it difficult to deal with seeing my inadequate self everywhere I looked.
It was a tough year. My nephew died at thirty-four weeks gestation, which really affected me, having had my own baby just two years beforehand. I was grateful that Ali’s birth had been so straightforward, but also felt guilty because Kaleb’s should have been too.
Ali started crèche, which meant she was sick every week with one thing or another. It was an exhausting, sleep-deprived time. John Paul and I would stay up with Ali at night, then head into work the next day, frustrated when we weren’t able to function properly. And the voices spoke louder than ever, telling me I was useless, inadequate, nothing but a waste of space. I was constantly tired to the point where I myself was sick all the time.
One day I went to the doctor’s with swollen glands. I had had a tummy bug the week before, which had wiped me out completely. I sat in her surgery, answering the routine questions.
‘I can’t go on like this,’ I said. ‘I’m sick nearly every week, and I’m constantly tired. I’m taking my iron. What the hell is wrong with me?’
‘That’s what having a baby does to you, I’m afraid,’ the doctor smiled. ‘Unless – well, how are you feeling in yourself?’
I stiffened. ‘I feel grand, great. Why?’
‘Sometimes physical symptoms can point to an underlying emotional problem,’ she said. ‘Has anything particularly stressful happened over the last while?’
‘Well, we moved house, and my nephew died this year,’ I explained. The doctor nodded.
‘That’s probably what’s causing it,’ she said. ‘Just try and take it easy.’
As I left the surgery, I thought of how one of my college friends had recently sought help for postnatal depression and how she had bravely posted about the whole experience on Facebook. And I remember reading it and thinking oh, if only I could be so brave. So strong. So honest with others, and with myself.
By July 2014, I was exhausted. I was ringing in sick at least once a week, and producing no work whatsoever in the office. All I could do was stare mindlessly at the screen, scrolling through random Independent Living sites, taking nothing in.
And I hated myself for this lack of productivity. (You’re nothing but a waste of space)
I would come home in the evenings, and spend time with my lovely daughter, playing on the floor with her, silent tears running down my face from the pains that radiated from every fibre of my body. (You will never be good enough for her)
I wanted my house to be perfect, my daughter to be perfect. But how could that be when I wasn’t perfect? When I looked in the mirror, all that I saw was a deformed nobody, an imposter waiting to be exposed. I was a terrible wife and mother, and I was convinced that the two people I loved more than anything in the world deserved better.
‘Where do you think you’re going?’ my husband asked, his face shocked. It was half one in the morning, at the end of July and I had been in bed. Now I was awake, looking at him from the doorframe of the sitting room, fully dressed under my bathrobe. And all I saw was mess. In reality, it was a couple of dirty dishes, but it might as well have been thousands of dirty dishes; I hadn’t the energy to deal with them. If only someone had given me the memo that a couple of dishes wouldn’t signal the end of the world, but there and then, I couldn’t deal with it.
I couldn’t deal with anything.
‘I’m off,’ I screamed, jumping into my wheelchair. ‘And you can go and fuck yourself for all I care. I won’t be back. I mean it this time.’ John Paul tried to stop me but I tore out past him and headed out into the darkness. I didn’t know where to go so I wandered around aimlessly for hours, watching the cloudy sky gradually become brighter. The grey haze enveloped me as I sat beside the canal, and cried, and cried and cried.
Later that morning, I went into work, sitting mindlessly in front of my laptop. After about an hour two of my colleagues collared me.
‘You look dreadful,’ said one, surveying my dark circles. ‘Something has to give. You can’t go on like this.’
‘You need a break,’ agreed the other. ‘Before you crack up.’
My initial reaction was oh shit, I’m going to lose my job, but they were right. I couldn’t go on like that. We agreed that two months off work should help me to feel like my normal self.
Within two weeks of being off work, I felt more like myself again. which was odd, because I thought that I would hate it. I absolutely loved being home with Alison, and getting to know her better.
And then, I started writing again.
It began as a few words here and there in an empty Word document. As the weeks wore on, I began to write out the thoughts in my head, and they didn’t look as stupid as they sounded in my mind. I wrote exactly how I felt, staring at the words until I smiled. This was how I felt. And as I explained in a previous blog, I began to understand why I’d felt so shit; so many things had happened that I’d repressed, including the death of my mother and the way I’d been treated after Ali was born. I started to blog about them and it made me feel happy and peaceful in a way I hadn’t felt in years.
I didn’t write this very long preamble because I want sympathy. I wrote it so that I can say that that horrible part of my life is over. I’ve never been happier, although loving myself is going to take a bit longer. I still have bad days, but everyone has; none of us are perfect. The main reason I’ve written this, however, is because it breaks my heart to think that there might be other women out there, suffering as I did, afraid as I was to speak out and ask for help. I know it’s easy to say this now, but there is no shame in having PND. It’s an illness, a horrible, horrible illness, and nobody should have to wrestle with it alone. And if you’re reading this and can relate to any of the above, please ask for help. I’ve heard that there are so many great counselling services out there and I’ve read and heard so many success stories. Don’t hold off – just do it. You are worth so much to so many people.
Most of all, you owe it to yourself. Because despite what those head demons are constantly trying to tell you, you’re actually pretty damn fantastic. You really are.