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My experience of Antenatal and Postnatal Mental illness; An interview for Maternal Mental Health Wk

My name is Karen Ellis, I am a postnatal rehabilitation coach. Prompted by Maternal Mental Health week, Rebecca Palmer from Happy Sleepy Baby (1) asked if she could interview me about my experiences with my mental health during the antenatal and postnatal period. The interview went something like this.

Not many speak of antenatal depression but can you tell me how you were throughout your second pregnancy?

I had a really rough start to my second pregnancy. I became pregnant just as I got a really nasty viral infection that meant I coughed all of the time. I also suffered from sickness regularly throughout the day and often woke in the night being sick. All of the pressure on my ribs meant an old injury was agitated and one of my previously broken ribs broke again, it was so painful. It hurt to breathe, so when I had to cough or be sick the pain was out of this world. I spent the first 16 weeks or so lying on my side in a bed trying to get comfortable. So it wasn’t a great start.

The virus, sickness and my rib got better though eventually and I returned back to work as a midwife. But it was hard, the long shifts, lack of breaks, constantly being on your feet, physically being tired and in pain, emotional stress that comes with the job and fear of litigation was overwhelming. But I would just put my head down and carry on because that was easier than acknowledging how I felt and having to deal with it. In this busy world I would find myself feeling like that was the only way. I was like a machine, numb, focused and just getting the job (that of life and work) done.

Looking back on my pregnancy, the thing that stands out the most to me is how I had decided I wasn’t going to have a live baby at the end of my pregnancy. It wasn’t something I feared or was worried about, it was something I had accepted and I knew was going to happen. I was emotionless and just acceptant of the fact that my baby was going to die. In fact I remember at about 22 weeks pregnant I lie in the bath after passing some mucus with what felt like really strong contractions. I didn’t tell anyone. In that moment I was sure my pregnancy was going to end, I had accepted it and didn’t feel worthy of anyones support. So I quietly lie there for hours alone. Eventually, the pains stopped and physically the rest of my pregnancy was uneventful. I carried on with a smile on my face looking like I was blooming to the rest of the world but inside I was an emotionless robot.

When your daughter arrived did things improve or get worse for your mental health?

When Yasmin arrived firstly I had to come to terms with having a baby because I really didn’t believe that was going to happen. But in a short amount of time I managed to bond really well with my baby. I couldn't leave her side and I was very jealous if anyone else held her. The love that came with it was overwhelming and I struggled to be ok with feeling that, I wasn’t used to feeling because I would so easily switch them off, it was my main coping mechanism.

Unfortunately, in my early postnatal period a lot of ugly situations showed their face and the only way I could deal with it was to switch off again. There were several situations happening that involved police and other organisations that I had to deal with. I was also part of an investigation at work so I had to leave my extremely small baby to attend meetings during my maternity. It was all very heavy on my emotional health and I resorted to how I coped best. So there I went again an emotionless robot, appearing to be coping fine just doing what I needed to do. I was totally unaware that I was not ok because I didn’t allow myself time to stop and think and work out how I felt.

Your career as a midwife had to come to a stop, how did you feel at this point and how did you overcome this?

Yes, so the investigation I had to go through during my maternity was really hard. When it finished mid maternity leave I didn’t know how to manage what had just happened so, I switched off to it and pretended it never happened. I didn’t allow myself to think about it, work out how I felt about it or even acknowledge it had happened because it was too painful.

This was ok whilst I wasn’t at work, but as soon as I returned to the hospital I had flash backs of being sat around a table of strangers, separated from my new born baby and reading from a statement. I went to go and pick up my off duty from the ward with Yasmin in a sling. As I walked towards the labour ward doors, I felt out of body like I was watching me, the corridor was swirling around me, I could hear my heart beating in my chest, my breath was fast and heavy and I felt really tingly. I got to the front door of the labour ward and I couldn’t move. The next thing I remember I was at occupational health.

The nurse there showed me so much kindness, she left a whole waiting room of patients and I was the centre of the world for that moment. Her caring compassion was obvious. I have never felt that before and for a moment I opened up to her with all the snotty tears that came with it. She instructed me I must go straight to the GP and she had called in advance. I remember changing Yasmin's nappy on the floor of the nurses room, feeling so so lost and acknowledging how much it hurt. But I just couldn’t go there, I couldn’t allow myself to feel those things because it was just too hard. So I didn’t, I followed the instructions, I went to the GP who signed me off work, I handed in my notice and I never returned to midwifery. If I did I would have to be confronted with emotion and feelings and I didn’t do them. So off I went with life's ritual. I never spoke about that again, until now I guess. So I guess I overcame it by not overcoming it. I just didn’t deal with it and didn’t think about it. That way it was easy.

Could you explain some of the tools that you have in your toolkit to help with your recovery? Which one or combination serves you best?

Yeah, so the toolbox came from a really lovely lady, who is a life coach that works with Yorkshire in Business. Last May, so a year ago now, came crunch point and a turn point in my mental health. I had locked away my feelings and emotions and dealt with so much trauma (without dealing with it if you know what I mean) that my body eventually physically took over. I broke, I know thats not a very PC way of putting it these days but thats the only way I can describe it. I wouldn’t listen to my mental health so my physically body took charge and took over me so I had no choice but to stop. I Had debilitating panic attack after panic attack, I would vomit day and night and I was physically so weak and exhausted I couldn’t get out of bed. I was so bad I couldn’t work and I had to give up my fitness business.

This is when Emma came in. I started seeing her weekly at Yorkshire in business and together we stated piecing together what was going on for me. This is support I have never had before and it has been so important to my recovery. In one of the sessions I told her through tears that I felt I would never be able to manage life again. It was in that session she told me about the toolkit. She described it as an imaginary toolkit that I carried around with me and at the moment it was empty. Over time I would start filling my toolkit up with tools that would help me out whenever I came to a point that I struggled. And she was right. Each time I came to a point I found difficult I would stop, feel my feelings and work out what I thought I needed. If it worked then that strategy would go into my tool kit. Now, when I have a rough time I firstly look into my toolkit to see what I have that could help me, I take it right out and put it to good use.

A perfect example of this is the coronavirus lockdown. I actually wrote a blog on the tools I used to help me work this out (2). When this all happened I took massive backstops with my mental health. It took a while of feeling overwhelmed, anxious, scared, angry to remember my toolkit. But there you have tool number one, Acknowledgment. I had to firstly acknowledge that I was not ok before I could even look further into my toolkit. This alone is a massive step for me. I didn’t close back up I actually allowed myself to feel these things and acknowledged them.

The next tools I used were choice and acceptance. This was another tool that Emma helped me work out. When I was having a hard time dealing with something that was out of my control she said to me. ‘You can not change what is happening, you can only change your actions and feelings’, this blew my mind! Could I really choose how I felt? Its not as easy as to just decide to feel another way. But if you can manage to accept a situation for what it is and choose to think differently about it then this can really flip it on its head. So thats what I did. This virus is here and there is nothing I can do about it. But there is something I can do about the way I feel about it and how I act in this situation.

So I moved onto adapting to the situation which largely involved lowering my expectations. Lowering expectations is the tool I use the most and has had the biggest impact on me. Listen to this ‘expectations = stress’, repeat it, say it out loud and let that go it. Its true right? I struggle with stress a lot and I have a low threshold when it comes to stress. So finding something that links directly to stress was epic for me. With expectations come stress to live up to these expectations. Both of these things can be healthy in small amounts but too much is debilitating. If you are feeling stressed, lower your expectations. I remember as the Coronavirus lockdown unfolded I decided I was going to have a timetable of home schooling events, cook and bake really wholesome meals, spring clean my house and launch my business. No wonder I felt so overwhelmed and stressed, I had planned my own doom. I recognised how stressed I felt and I remembered the tool that works best under these circumstances is lowering my expectations. So I lowered these expectations- actually I all but just took them all away- and boom! Stress, gone.

How are you doing now?

Now, things are hard. I was doing really well and having more good days than bad. But, under the circumstances, my support network has gone and we have all had to adapt so much so it is understandable that I am finding it tough. And I think we should all acknowledge that its a tough time and we are allowed to find it hard and not be hard on ourselves about it. I am having more bad days than good at the moment. Most days I feel dizzy, nauseous, out of body, confused. Some days are really hard to get through and these days I keep my expectations to just feeding my children and surviving the day. But there are good days and when the days come I sup it all up. I breathe in the energy and the happy and I live all of the moments so that on the bad days I can remember how that feels and that gives me hope. I know it will not always be like this, I am still on a massive journey of self development and learning. Im excited to carry on filling up my toolkit and for a time were bad days are much less because I know that will come.

Do you think your experiences has empowered you to start your own business and one that is directed at mothers?

Working with mothers has always been a passion of mine even way before midwifery. I have supported women through pregnancy, birth and postnatal and I cherish all of my experiences so much. So it was natural that I would find myself doing this again in one way or another.

My journey to find mental wellness has really shaped how I deliver my business. It is really important to me to have moments where I allow my brain to switch off. I also need to move my body even if I initially don’t feel like it. Music helps you do this, it gives you an instant happy boost and makes you want to dance. This is why all of my baby wearing exercise classes start with a few tracks of easy to follow dance tracks to really up beat feel good music. I believe we will all benefit from those moments even if we don’t realise it yet. So, I would say this experience is what has led my work to look like it does today.

Finally, what would be your advice to anyone watching and feels that your story resonates with them?

Stop and acknowledge how you feel. Simply that, because once you have done that you can then work out what it is that you need. So, grab a cup of tea and sit in your own thoughts and feelings and ask your self 'Am I Okay?'

Also check out to find out more about baby-wearing and pregnancy safe exercise classes and building a strong postnatal core for life.

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