Short Story: On the Edge

The pale pink light gave the room a heavenly glow. Siobhan lay in silence, watching the cavity of her chest rise, then fall, then rise again. The dripping noise from outside her window had stopped; the rain must have finally subsided. It had kept her awake most of the night, which meant that she was not jolted from the security of darkness to give Aoife her night feed. Michael was supposed to be on duty tonight, but Siobhan had supposed that there was no point in waking him up. He’d have only been cranky, and God knows there’d been enough bloody rows between them in the last few weeks to last a lifetime.

‘You’re crazy, woman,’ he’d said to her at the peak of yet another row where she had threatened to leave for good. She’d even had her cabin-sized wheelie packed beside her, although she wasn’t sure what she had put into it. The decision to leave had been, as in times previous, a spur of the moment one, made because she couldn’t bear those nasty voices in her head. This time had been different, however. She had really hurt him.

‘If you hadn’t wanted your precious baby so much, I’d still be normal and not a bloody psycho,’ she’d screamed at him as she walked away, the sound of her own sobs failing to drown out Aoife’s.

She’d come back of course, hours later, and she knew Michael was relieved, even if he didn’t want to show it. They should’ve tried to talk it out there and then, but they were both tired from the fight. The constant fighting. Fighting to make it through the days, the hours. This had been exactly three weeks before, and now the pair of them were walking on eggshells. It infuriated her how he always tried to say the right thing, always tried to give her space. If he could find it in himself to be as much of a cunt as she had been, then she wouldn’t need to carry so much guilt.

A crappy mother, a crappy wife, thought Siobhan as she peeled off the bedclothes and slid into the tracksuit bottoms that she’d strewn on her bedside locker just a few hours before. She picked up one of Michael’s hoodies from the shelf, not because of sentimentality but because the excess material hid her grotesque frame, the extra pouch that now hung around her waist, like an internal bum-bag. She inhaled as she peered into the cot at her sleeping daughter, longing to feel that special connection. Aoife’s thick lips smiled, something which Kathleen, Siobhan’s mother-in-law had insisted was just wind. Well of course it was just wind, Siobhan had thought. It seemed that Aoife was willing to settle in anyone’s arms but in the arms of her mother. Siobhan didn’t know how she felt towards Aoife, but it wasn’t love. It wasn’t hate, either. It was nothing.

What sort of mother feels nothing towards their own baby? A baby that she had yearned for since she was given her first baby doll by Santa at the age of just five years old? Three years of expensive and gruelling IVF had given Siobhan a daughter more beautiful than she could have ever imagined, and yet at that moment, Siobhan didn’t feel that she was cut out for years of self-sacrifice, of putting somebody else first.

Trying to stop herself sniffling in the dark, Siobhan padded towards the door, watching the sleepy scene. It was almost romantic, like a Cow & Gate ad. A gentle inner voice tried to persuade her to take back off her clothes, to lie down and try to sleep, but Siobhan thought it was too late now. She crept into the kitchen and rummaged through the medicine box, pocketing every painkiller she could find.

Soon this pain would be over.

Soon she would be over.

Despite the high winds earlier in the night, Siobhan hadn’t expected to be peppered with cold, misty rain when she opened the front door. She smiled to herself as she momentarily considered bringing an umbrella. Ha! She thought. People who are dead inside have little call for umbrellas.

She walked over the Whitehall bridge. The road was gleaming black from all the rain, and the usually busy Daingean Road was quiet. She had it planned: she would walk a few miles down the canal, then she would take all the pills until she felt a little delirious. At that moment she would succumb eternally to the murkiness, allowing herself to sink to the bottom. She supposed that people might be sad for a few days – her sister Aine would take it particularly hard – but in that moment she was grateful that her parents were no longer alive to feel the pain. She wished that she was more religious, that she believed that she would be reunited with her mam, whose voice she yearned to hear with every fibre of her being. But she wasn’t.

The wind was gathering pace again, a perfect time to venture nearer the edge. This way, she wouldn’t have to jump. She might have been just out for a midnight stroll when she was blown in. Nobody would have to know. She was just about to step closer to the edge when a gravelly voice behind her startled her:

‘Wild night to be out for a stroll.’

At first, Siobhan thought she was hearing things, because surely nobody in their right minds (she didn’t fall under that definition, she supposed) would be out at this hour? When she turned around, the sight of a shadow startled her. Despite the wind, she could detect the metallic smell of vodka from his breath. Yet this person was not staggering: he was trudging along slowly, as if carrying a great weight on his shoulders. She felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck, ready to go on the defensive.

‘Mind your own business,’ she said at last. Couldn’t he see that she wanted to be left alone? It occurred to her that he could be dangerous, maybe capable of rape or murder. But then again, wasn’t everyone? ‘I don’t have any money. Leave me alone.’

She half-jogged further up the canal path. It never occurred to her to walk back towards home, where there would be somebody waiting to protect her. What she did realise, however, is that she didn’t feel that she was worth protecting. She also noted that while she wanted to disappear, dissolve into the earth as though she never existed, she needed to have control over how it happened. God knows, she thought, it’s the only thing I seem to have any control over at the moment.

Her footsteps slowed, and when she was outside her own head she heard the hesitant footsteps behind her. The aroma of cigarette smoke was infused in the sharp October breeze. She sat down on the hill outside the old Daly farmhouse, inwardly cursing herself for doing so as the wetness crept in, leaving her derriere saturated. The violent wind had subsided; all she was left with was silence and self-disgust.

After a few moments, her companion crouched down beside her. He smelt of sweat, of old urine, of hopelessness. Bloody typical, she thought. Trust me to meet a drunk. Her partner inhaled, which started a violent coughing fit.

‘You ok?’ she asked, forgetting herself.

The man nodded. ‘Be grand in a minute,’ he said, wiping the tears from his eyes. ‘I’m well used to it by now.’ He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a long can.

‘You should quit the fags,’ Siobhan said, immediately hating herself for her own self-righteousness. Who was she to talk when she had the entire contents of her medicine box in her pocket, ready to take in one go?

‘I probably should do a lot of things,’ he answered her, his voice quiet. Siobhan heard the snapping of the can, and her stomach turned at the smell of fresh beer, presumably cheap. ‘You shouldn’t be out here so late. These parts can be dangerous for the likes of you.’ The beer trickled down his throat. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

‘What do you mean, ‘the likes of me’?’

He waved his hand, fanning her words away. ‘You know exactly what I mean.’ He rummaged in his pocket. ‘Smoke?’

‘No.’ Her voice was firm. ‘I don’t smoke.’

‘Ha. It must be hard to be so bloody perfect.’

Siobhan was relieved to smell the smoke; sitting so close to him, her bloodhound-like sense of smell detected urine and old underarm sweat, with the slightest hint of shit. She yearned to escape, to be at one with the swirling brown water in front of her. She took a deep breath, then another. Already she felt like she was suffocating. It wasn’t the feeling of comfort that she had been looking for.

‘Perfect. Ha! If only.’ For the first time since they met, Siobhan considered how she must appear in her companion’s eyes: a silly little damsel in distress, a privileged housewife who couldn’t possibly know what real hardship felt like. ‘You don’t know anything about me.’ She stood up, putting her hand in her pocket, feeling safer as she held the pills in her hand. As long as she had a plan, however warped that plan might be, she felt grounded. More grounded than she had felt in a long time.

Her stomach turned to bile as she thought about events earlier that day. It had started as an average day, or at least what she now considered to be average. She found it difficult to believe that just a matter of months before she was the manager of the Tullamore branch of the Bank of Ireland, bringing in quite a generous pay cheque. They’d squirrelled most of it away, of course, being sensible and thrifty. Aoife had been a surprise, a most welcome surprise. Her mere existence was testament to the fact that even the most highly paid and expensive doctors can get things wrong sometimes.

Aoife had awoken at six that morning, demanding her morning feed. Siobhan should have been well-rested; Aoife had slept since half nine the night before. Instead Siobhan had laid awake all night, unable to turn off her brain which was thinking at breakneck speed. What if she had dropped Aoife when she nearly tripped over that loose tile in the bathroom earlier? Aoife’d had a tiny bit of red in her spit-up earlier which Siobhan had assumed was from the strawberry she’d eaten earlier that day, but now she was worried that it was blood. She should’ve checked, and she didn’t. What sort of mother would allow her own child to bleed to death?

Siobhan couldn’t live with the constant inner panic anymore. It didn’t take a genius to work out that Aoife would be better off being looked after by someone more experienced, someone who would appreciate her for who she was. She warmed inside as she thought of Aoife’s blonde eyelashes, the tiny half-moons of her fingernails, the dimples that appeared when she smiled. Aoife was perfect. She deserved better than the fighting, than a mother who didn’t know what she was doing.

Another hacking cough disturbed Siobhan from her daydreaming. She stood up, and adjusted her jacket.

‘Anyway, it was nice to meet you. I really must…’

‘It was this very spot,’ the man said to her, gesturing towards the canal. ‘Where they found her. You know, I come here every night, try to work out why… She didn’t even leave a note.’ He wiped his chin on the sleeve of his jacket. ‘They say she killed herself, but I reckon that’s bullshit. She had three kids… she was happy.’ He lit a cigarette, the blue threaded smoke lingering in the calmness; the wind had passed, as Siobhan had known it would. ‘I’d only seen her the night before. She was smiling, laughing, dolled up to the nines…’

‘Who was?’ She only asked because she assumed it rude not to.

‘Karen. Oh, Karen. Now I’ve made a lot of mistakes – I’m sure that’s obvious – but she definitely wasn’t one of them.’ He pulled hard on the cigarette, as if he was seeking comfort. ‘She had it all, believe it or not – looks, brains – her mother’s doing of course.’ He crushed the empty can into the palm of his hand. ‘You hear stories, don’t you? Tell-tale signs, people losing interest in their lives -goodbye notes – we got none of that. No explanation.’

‘I’m so sorry.’ She didn’t know what else to say.

He shrugged. ‘They say men don’t talk. I don’t talk about Karen. I don’t know… maybe I’m hurt, ashamed… She could’ve fucking said something.’ The trees rustled gently in the breeze. ‘In the beginning, it was so simple. She’d been selfish, a coward – I thought maybe it’d been some silly woman hormonal thing, but they have pills for that now, don’t they?’

Siobhan scoffed. ‘You men are all the same. You think that solutions are so simple. And that we’re hysterical little women who know nothing about hardship. You have no idea what it’s like to have no control over your emotions, having to act all normal when your head is completely frazzled.’ Her voice started to break as she thought of her daughter at home. ‘How it feels to be completely useless and to have someone depend on you…’ Her chest shook with hacking sobs; she could barely catch her breath. The man looked up at her, nodding his head.

‘There,’ he said. ‘It’s out there. You’ve said it. So you’re a crap mum.’ His candidacy surprised her. ‘I suppose you beat her black and blue when she cries…’

‘Well, of course not…’ She was taken aback.

‘Or spend your money on high heels instead of baby formula.’

Siobhan’s fists clenched. ‘How dare you…’

‘Or head off for evenings out and leave bubs home alone. Leave a bottle in the cot, be grand.’

She laughed at the absurdity of the last one. She knew he was joking now.

‘You’d be surprised,’ he shrugged. ‘I’ve seen it. But Karen wasn’t like that, and neither are you.’ He stood up, wiping his hands on his thighs. ‘Go home. Get a nice hot bath.’ Siobhan screeched as he slid his hand into her oversized jacket pocket, taking out the pills and throwing them into the canal. ‘Things will be better in the morning. You’ll see.’

‘How did you know?’

‘Woman, you’ve been rooting in your pocket all fecking night.  This isn’t my first time to do this, you know. After Karen, I swore never again. Not on my watch, anyway. If you wanted to kill yourself, you would’ve done it by now. We’ve been here all night.’ He nodded at the orange rising sun and grinned. ‘For all you knew, I could’ve helped you. Murdered you. Look at the state of me. Wouldn’t blame you for making that assumption.’

‘I guess we can never know what’s going on in other people’s lives.’

‘Nope.’ He started to walk away. ‘Unless we choose to tell people. How can people save us if they don’t know that we’re drowning?’

She watched him walk away, and how he walked with a sense of purpose. She supposed he had nowhere to go. But, she realised, he had done an important thing that night – he had saved her life. She was still shaking when she got to the front door. A white-faced Michael greeted her, his face filling with relief as he beheld hers.

‘Thank God,’ he said as she broke down, wrapping his protective arms around her. ‘I was so worried, I thought you might’ve done something stupid…’ Both their faces were awash with tears. ‘I’m so sorry… I’m so glad you’re okay.’ He squeezed her closer to him.

And then Siobhan whispered the words she had always found so hard to say:

‘Michael, I’m not okay. I think I need help.’

He nodded, and finally Siobhan felt the weightlessness she had been craving.

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1-7 May: Maternal Mental Health Week

I was just scrolling through Facebook this evening, you know, doing some important web-based research, when I saw a post saying that it was Maternal Mental Health Week this week (May 1-7). According to talkingmums.com, up to one in five women experience mental health issues either during pregnancy or in the year following birth. Yet, out of these women, only 7% of them are typically referred for specialist help.

How many of you, like me, have suffered from PND, yet never admitted it to a doctor or health professional? How many of you out there are still suffering?

I’ll never forget the moment I knew for sure I was suffering from PND. Alison was only three months old and we had just discovered (or rather, the Public health nurse finally believed me) that she had a cow’s milk allergy. We had Ali put on special formula. She started gaining weight and became the happiest baby ever, sleeping through the night and everything.

I should’ve been happy, but I wasn’t. Relieved, yes. Happy? No.

All I wanted to do is disappear. I was just waiting for the right time.

I had this vision of having PND as standing over your baby’s cot with a pillow in your hand or wanting to throw your baby down a flight of stairs. While I appreciate that some women feel like that (and this doesn’t make you a bad person – you’re unwell and need help), I didn’t. I felt that my daughter was the most perfect person in the world and that she must have done something truly horrible in life to end up with a mother like me.

I didn’t know that PND meant looking in the mirror and being repulsed by the pathetic specimen staring back.

I didn’t realise that ignoring it wouldn’t make it go away. I ended up in the doctor with chest pains, shoulder pains, stomach aches and yet the doctor couldn’t find physiological reasons for any of them. She prescribed painkillers which didn’t seem to help. I always denied feeling down or depressed. Big smile on my face. Sure what would I have to be depressed about?

By May 2014, I could barely get out of bed. I wasn’t eating properly. I was crying all the time; it was all  I seemed to want to do. In order to get from one end of the day to the other, I had to measure my time in hourly units. Then half-hourly, and towards the end, minute by minute. If I can hold myself together for ten more minutes I’ll be grand, I would think to myself. But of course, I wasn’t grand – far from it.

When I took time off work, I considered my treatment options. I know it sounds ridiculous and shallow, but the thought of going on antidepressants filled me with dread. I wasn’t too keen on counselling either as my previous experiences were quite negative. But I knew I had to do something, so I started writing. Writing how I felt. Writing about my flaws. Writing about my talents. Suddenly, I felt liberated. I’m not recommending this course of action over medication or counselling, but writing was my saviour. It’s something I enjoy, am (reasonably) good at and writing my thoughts and feelings down helped me to own them, and then let them go.

Postnatal Depression has changed me into someone different to who I used to be. I am more sensitive now, and I hate myself for it. I’m still conscious of how people perceive me as a mother. In addition, I now have to make a conscious effort to look after my mental health, to recognise the signs of feeling sad or overwhelmed and act on them before they take over. I also have to be careful. I love helping people, but I have a tendency to internalise their problems to the point where they become my own problems. Sometimes I need to step back, say no and this is hard. I hate doing it.  But I have to remind myself that if I don’t mind myself, I can’t help others.

This week is National Maternal Mental Health Week, and while it’s great to have a platform to write about PND and mental health, the issue of maternal health shouldn’t be confined to a mere seven days of the year. We need to open up the conversation to all mothers, make them feel supported and not feel alone. When I published my long preamble about my experience with PND, I was convinced that either no-one would read it or that it would be dismissed as being a tad melodramatic. What I didn’t expect was the hordes of girlfriends, as well as women I’d never met, emailing me their stories and reminding me that I was not alone. Thanks to those women for validating my story and for making me feel that my depression was completely normal.

And if you are reading this, and you are silently suffering from pre- or post-natal depression, you are not alone either. Look after yourself and get the help you need. Trust me – even mothers who appear to be perfect can suffer silently.

You are worth the help. And after the fog lifts, life becomes so much simpler.

You are wonderful. You are beautiful. You are everything to your children, and they deserve you just as much as you deserve them.

But you can’t pour from an empty cup, so look after yourself.

The Secret Agony of Postnatal Depression

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Enough is enough

I’ve decided to take a career break from work. Six months, to be exact. It’s something that I’d been toying with for a while but couldn’t quite bring myself to do. I work in the area of Independent Living and I’m passionate about the rights of people with disabilities. I love working with my fellow leaders. But I also love writing, and I want to have more time with my daughter, so I’m off. And it is blooming scary, I tell you. Not only because I’m not bringing in a wage, but because I’ve always worked, it’s a crucial part of my identity.

That said, I will never regret all of the time I’m enjoying with my daughter, who is now three-and-a-half and great fun to be around. She’s energetic, imaginative, cheeky, and growing up all too fast. I admit that there was a time when depression clouded my time with Ali; everything seemed hard, an effort; I didn’t think that I was enough for her. But now that I feel more like my old bubbly self again I intend to enjoy every second with her.

Since Alison was born, I’d always been afraid that I’d never be good enough for her. I was overly conscious of how I was perceived as a parent with a disability. I worried that Ali would resent me for having her, that I would become a burden on her. I’m not at all afraid of this now. Today, Ali and I walked to the shop alone together for the first time, me in the wheelchair holding her hand, her on the inside of the path. It was the best feeling in the world, because heretofore I wouldn’t have trusted myself to do this. I am finally starting to see myself through my own eyes again, not through the eyes of others.

It’s amazing how we expect so much of ourselves, but we never step back to admire what we have done. We don’t have time, we are too busy, it’s not enough. For example, I told myself that I would be an established journalist with my first novel written by the time I was thirty. I wanted to be fit and able to walk everywhere unaided so that I could keep up with Ali. Since turning thirty, I’ve been bitterly disappointed in myself that I’ve done neither of these things. It was more than disappointment, it was pure disgust, self-abhorrence. It sounds dramatic, but for months I could barely look at myself in the mirror without this disappointment washing over me.

Recently, however, something changed. And for all the things I teach my daughter on a daily basis, a month ago, she taught me the most important lesson of all.

It was evening-time. Ali and I were watching telly and I said to her, ‘I love you,’ to which she replied, ‘ I love you too mummy’. I thought for a moment. Lately, I’d been feeling grossly inadequate: I’d been in too much pain to play football, too tired to play chasing and I’d say she would have baulked at the sight of another defrosted spag-bol, cooked in bulk about a week before. ‘Ali,’ I said, ‘how would you like a new mummy?’

Ali was intrigued. ‘A new mummy? Is she nice? Who is it?’

I replied, ‘I don’t know yet. But this mummy would be super cool and play football and basketball and chasing and tie up your hair and do your buttons and go for walks. Well, what do you think?’

Ali shook her head and looked at me, placing her small hand gently on my shoulder. ‘I don’t want a new mummy. I just want you.’

Pathetic that I should need such reassurance from a three year old, but little does she know that those four words, ‘I just want you’, have changed my life so dramatically. Physically, the aches and pains seem to have faded significantly. I have more energy and a new positive outlook on life. I feel I can do anything because this little person looks up to me. I just want you.

And being so happy has made me realise that my fantastic husband is still my best friend. He has been incredibly supportive and just wants to see me happy. He is more than happy to see me tapping away on the laptop, trying to come up with literary masterpieces. He never tells me that I am crazy or deluded, though I am probably both!

From an early age, we are encouraged to compete against each other. In school, we are encouraged to study hard in order to be the best. Even under-tens partake in handwriting competitions, poetry competitions and art competitions, we have sports competitions. When we are eighteen, we sit the most competitive exam invented, the Leaving Cert, in order to get high points, to be accepted into a course so that we can pursue a challenging career. We push ourselves to be the best employees, the best friends, the best partners, the best parents, often to the detriment of our physical and emotional health.

And now, I’m saying enough, or more specifically, that I believe that I am enough. I will still give my all to everything I do, but I won’t be beating myself up if I don’t succeed. Today, at least, I feel happy and free, and if my daughter and husband still love me in spite of the self-berating and toing and froing I’ve been doing over the last few years, then I must be doing something right.