It was called the Baby Blues, but post natal depression can lead some mothers to severe mental illness. Sarah Halliwell had to sign herself into a psychiatric hospital
You should be feeling the overwhelming rush of Mother Love.
After waiting all those months, your baby is here. She’s wriggling in her crib, yearning to be picked up. You’re taking care of her; going through the motions. But you can hardly bear to look into the little face you had longed to see.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. You aren’t how you are supposed to be. You’re convinced you’re a terrible mother, but you aren’t; you don’t realise it, but you have post natal depression.
An estimated 35,000 mothers in England and Wales suffer the illness, thought to be linked to hormonal changes, stress, worry and isolation, in silence.
Between 10 and 15 per cent of new mothers are affected - some 70,000 in the UK - and some 49 per cent don’t get professional help.
While most recover without treatment in three to six months, one in four are still affected when their child is a year old.
In its most severe form, post natal psychosis, women develop a severe form of mental illness. It is thought to affect one in a thousand new mothers. It’s 15 years since PND brought Sarah Halliwell to thoughts of suicide. Here she tells her remarkable story:
“Everyone said she was a beautiful baby. People would stop me in the street to gaze at Bethany, but all I could focus on was the small red stork mark across her forehead. It was as if I couldn’t allow myself to take in her face and connect with her...”
There are tears, suddenly, in Sarah Halliwell’s eyes as she tells me of the achingly sad months when she couldn’t allow herself to bond with her daughter.
Meeting her today, it is hard to believe that this confident, fun-loving woman, a wife of 18 years, mother to four and a former special needs teacher, was in such a dark place.
Sarah agrees: “Some 15 years on I don’t recognise the woman who struggled to make a cup of tea and felt emotionally dead,” she says. “I want to tell my story so that any woman suffering with post natal depression believes there’s a way through. I am incredibly happy and fulfilled in my warm, tight-knit and slightly chaotic family now and I know I’m a good mother.”
Sarah, 41, lives in Abourthorne with her family. She and her husband work on Families Together, a community project based on the estate. She spends her days juggling the needs of her family, whose ages span seven to 17, with those of Abourthorne residents - particularly new mothers who could be suffering as she once did without even realising they have post-natal depression.
Sarah now believes her PND started before Bethany was even born - that it descended after the traumatic birth of her first child Nathan, now 17.
“Four days of labour, baby at risk, high forceps delivery, baby being rushed off for oxygen... an ordeal.” She recalls every detail chronologically, in that way mothers can still do long, long after the pain and trauma of the event has faded.
“It was so far removed from the textbook experience my husband Nigel and I had planned. I’d had to take a long period off work during pregnancy with a back problem and to make matters worse, we moved into a new house the day after I came out of hospital,” she says. “How naive was that?
“I settled into motherhood and I loved Nathan. But all the time I felt I was being taken over by this creeping fog. I told myself I was tired and just wasn’t coping very well with the huge change.” By the time Nathan was nine months old the feeling was beginning to lift. Then Sarah got pregnant again. She was ill throughout, but in contrast, Bethany’s home birth was a relaxed, much shorter affair. By rights, all should have been well afterwards.
“But it wasn’t. I went through the motions of motherhood; doing only what was necessary for the children. There was no joy. No laughter. No play,” Sarah recalls.
She tried to get help. She told her health visitor, but her concerns were wafted away by a woman rushing to get to her next new mother.
Eventually she plucked up the courage to go to her GP and was sent to a community psychiatric nurse. “She listened, but told me I wasn’t ill enough to carry on seeing her,” she recalls.
Sarah’s depression worsened. “It got to the point where I didn’t want to breast-feed Bethany because I didn’t want her to touch me. I had this darling girl and didn’t want to be around her.”
She made a tearful phone call to a friend, who enlisted the help of her father, a consultant psychiatrist. Swiftly, severe post natal depression was diagnosed and Prozac prescribed.
She felt relief to know her feelings were down to an illness but the medication which initially brought a feeling of wellbeing caused a rush of negative emotion. She found herself thinking she didn’t want to go on living the way she was and that Nigel and the children would be better off without her.
Her thoughts turned to suicide but survival instinct kicked in. One day, while Nigel was out with the kids, she called a taxi, sank into the back and went to the local psychiatric hospital. “All I could think as I walked in was; If I never see them again, it’s OK,” she says.
Bethany was nine months old, her little boy had just turned two. “I left Nigel holding the babies but I was so desperate. I couldn’t cope. I knew I needed help.”
She stayed there for six weeks, surrounded by people displaying all manner of acute psychological conditions.
Sarah recalls: “It was terrifying. I didn’t try to take my life, although people around me did. But I felt that by being there I was fighting as hard as I could to get my family back to the happy life that we had dreamed of.”
Occupational therapy and writing her feelings in a daily journal helped considerably. But when it was suggested she move to a mother and baby unit with Bethany for two weeks, she was horrified.
“I thought I couldn’t face looking after Bethany again and contemplated running away and starting a new life all on my own.” But her love for Nigel stopped her and she agreed. “The first morning Bethany was with me, I sat looking at her in her crib, thinking: I can’t do this. But I have a deep religious faith and I prayed for help.
“Immediately after, Bethany said “mama” for the first time and something melted in me. When it was time to go home, it was easy.”
Sarah took a part-time job, which built up her self-confidence. Then she took up a teaching career, purposely leaving a six-year-gap before having her third child.
“Even then, family and friends were incredibly worried I would succumb to PND again,” she says. “But I was fine. Joel’s birth was an emergency Caesarian section and very traumatic, but when I saw him I felt that wonderful rush of love other mothers describe. It was the same when Samuel arrived two years later. Post natal depression no longer defined me.”
Sarah’s younger children are unaware what their mum went through, but Nathan and Bethany, 15, have always known and have urged her to tell her story to The Star.
“I was worried that talking about the problems I went through with Bethany would hurt her, but she has been amazing. She told me: ‘Mum, don’t hold back. I know how much you love me, but there could be other women feeling like you did and worrying they will never be able to love their babies’.”
Self-help group aims to support families
Motivated by her experiences of PND, Sarah’s desire is now to support young families.
She has teamed with the national Parent Early Education Partnership (PEEP) to set up a weekly Parent & Baby group in Arbourthorne.
It will next meet at 10am on April 16 at the Beacon Church and Community Centre. Families can attend for just £1.
She explains: “By providing a warm, welcoming, accepting group I want to help empower other parents to give their children a flying start in life. Isolation and loneliness at what is a very stressful time is one of the biggest reasons why women get PND.
“There will be time for people to really talk about what concerns them. Some women might feel like I did. I want to tell them eventually they will feel joy again, but that they may need some help along the way and I’m there to help them find it.”
Call Sarah on 0777 5302275 to register for the group.