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One mum’s experience of postpartum psychosis

Eve Canavan shares her experience of postpartum psychosis, how she finally got the help she needed and why Mother and Baby Units are so important

Six years ago, I gave birth to my son Joe. I desperately wanted a baby and had experienced pregnancy loss in the past which had devastated me. Our child was a much longed for baby and I was joyful during my pregnancy. I had never experienced mental illness and only knew a little about postnatal depression so nothing prepared me for what happened.

Hallucinations and feeling trapped

Within an hour of giving birth, instead of being in a baby bubble, my brain started to feel like it was shutting down, my mind felt muddled and I was finding it hard to concentrate. Instead of feeling joy about having a baby, I felt scared of him. Once we were discharged, my feelings got worse. I found that I couldn’t be near Joe on my own. I started to feel trapped in my new role as a mum and I was terrified of the notion that this child was now here forever. The picture above right was taken when Joe was three weeks old and I can see in my eyes that I don’t really have a clue what's going on.

I found it hard to look at Joe and, as the weeks went on, I started to feel not only trapped as a mum but trapped in my house. I began thinking that if I could escape the world, then these awful feelings would go away. I visualised being able to cut through the clouds. I would claw at my mouth when I was finding it hard to breathe because it felt like cling-film was over it.

I felt like I was in a dream world. One day I thought I was floating in the corner of the room looking down on myself and I started to experience vivid hallucinations of being trapped. Bright flashes of light would appear in front of my eyes, I would develop tunnel vision and my hearing would become muffled. My hallucinations got worse and, at one point, I thought I was in a coffin being buried alive.

Lack of understanding

John took me to the doctors for six weeks - sometimes twice a day. At one appointment I was rocking back and forth in the chair staring into space but the doctors didn't know how to treat me. Some said I needed sleep, some said I should try and do things like bake a cake to relax, one said maybe it’s postnatal depression.

After scouring the internet and talking to the Association of Postnatal Illness, it was John who found out about specialist Mother and Baby Units (MBUs) for women with severe perinatal mental illness after having a baby. It was obvious I needed to be in one but our local doctors hadn’t heard of them and didn’t know how to refer me. John found out there was one in Nottingham where his parents lived so when Joe was six weeks old, and I was at my worst, we packed up and travelled 200 miles to John’s parents.

Once in Nottingham, I moved a chair into the middle of their living room and sat in it and refused to move. I felt safe in this chair and was screaming for an ambulance. That night I woke up in the middle of the night and asked John why the duvet cover was dancing and John drove me to an out-of-hours doctor. John told her about my symptoms. She asked me one question: “Have you planned your own suicide?” I said no and she advised that as I hadn’t planned my own suicide, I was ‘low risk’ and should go home and get some sleep and that everything would seem better in the morning. John was furious because the reality was, I was so confused, I could barely function let alone plan how to end my life.

Getting into a Mother and Baby Unit

The next day I woke up and told John I wanted to die. He called the Association of Postnatal Illness for advice and then called Psychiatric Outpatients at the hospital. He demanded that I was assessed and they agreed that I could be brought in. An hour after being assessed, I was diagnosed with postpartum psychosis and admitted to the Mother and Baby Unit (MBU), which is where I started my recovery. Doctors couldn’t believe I had been left in such a state by other medical professionals: I should have been in a unit from the day Joe was born.

The MBU had six bedrooms. It was warm and friendly and when I walked in, having no idea who I was or what was going on, the nurse cuddled me and said: “You will get better, Eve, I promise”. I was shown to my room and the nurses gently explained that I would stay here with my baby until I was at a manageable point. I would be put on medication to help my recovery and, very importantly for me, medication that wouldn’t affect me breastfeeding. Throughout all of this, even at times where I couldn’t look at Joe, John would put him on my breast and I was able to nurse him. I felt a terrible fear of my baby but my body was almost clinging to him through breastfeeding (he’s still nursing now at five!).

I had a bedroom next to the nurse’s office as I was too scared to be in a room on my own with Joe. The door of my bedroom stayed open for a week so I didn’t have to be on my own but after that first week, with the support of my wonderful John and the doctors and nurses, I closed the door and was able to be on my own with Joe for a couple of minutes. It was the biggest turning point in my illness.

Road to recovery

Once I left the unit, we stayed in Nottingham for a few more months while I recovered. I had to re-learn how to do basic tasks. I went from doing briefing documents for Prime Minister's Questions just six months before to having to learn how to walk around the garden for 30 seconds on my own with my baby. My community psychiatric nurse set me daily tasks that I had to complete in order to break my fear.

We returned to London a few months later. My recovery took around three years in all – I felt confident with Joe from when he was around six months but I had residual trauma and had Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy two years ago to deal with this.

Joe is nearly six now and life is lovely! We have been through a rough time but I have recovered and I’m back to myself. I love and adore my son and family.

Eve and her family after recovery

Seeking help

I'd say to any other mum who's experiencing mental health problems: it’s not your fault and you don’t need to be ashamed. Talk to your loved ones and your GP so you can get the right help and support. Be honest about your thoughts and feelings – especially if they are scaring you. You aren’t a bad person if you do have thoughts that scare you – remember it’s the illness that is causing these and they are a symptom. If you find your doctor isn’t helpful or doesn’t listen, try another doctor.

Read more about Eve in her blog.

Find out about our #BeyondBabyBlues campaign, which encourages people to talk more openly about maternal mental health, to avoid the mistake of dismissing potentially serious mental health issues in themselves, friends or family and to seek help.

Further information

NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700.

You might find attending one of NCT's Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.

Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.

You might also like to try one of our Relax, Stretch and Breathe classes, which aim to help improve your physical and emotional wellbeing, as well as feel more confident and positive.

Mind is a leading mental health charity that provides information on a range of mental health topics including postnatal depression and has an infoline for support: 0300 123 3393.

#PNDHour is an online peer support group that runs every Wednesday at 8pm via the Twitter account @PNDandMe. Anyone can join in to discuss topics about antenatal and postnatal depression, such as self-care, medication and seeking help. It’s run by a mum called Rosey who also blogs about her own experiences with antenatal and postnatal depression, as well as raising awareness of perinatal mental illness, at PND and me.

Action on Postpartum Psychosis (APP) is a network across the UK and further afield which includes women who have experienced PP and people with an interest in PP. It is a collaborative project run by women who have experienced PP and academic experts from Birmingham and Cardiff Universities. APP has recently produced some new patient information leaflets about 'Postpartum Psychosis: a guide for partners', 'Planning pregnancy: a guide for women at increased risk of Postpartum Psychosis' and 'Recovery after Postpartum Psychosis'.

The Association for Postnatal Illness is a charity that provides support to mothers suffering from postnatal illness and increasec public awareness of the illness.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has further information on mental health in pregnancy and postpartum psychosis.