One of the reasons that I get so much out my physical Yoga practice is because my last pregnancy changed my body so much that every movement was laboured and uncomfortable, even from week 10.
And my Mental Health didn't fare much better.
I have 4 children, and this story is about my experience of having a Bipolar relapse during my final pregnancy.
To be clear, this is not an investigation into to whether or not psychiatric medication should be taken whilst pregnant, or if women who take these medications should even be trying to have babies (I'm biting my tongue here, I really am).
It is simply my story. Judge me if you must.
At some point during my 2nd Trimester, I stopped sleeping. For anybody who knows a bit about Bipolar Disorder, you will know that this is risky. A few nights of lost sleep might cause a mood swing which could be catastrophic. For me, it was agitation that was keeping me awake.
Oh god, even remembering it now feels horrendous. This skin crawling, anxious agitation, whereby I could only find small relief through a constant physical movement of some sort.
That is why my partner would often come down in the morning to find me on the sofa, eyes half closed, jiggling my legs furiously. I was, essentially, resting.
My Psychiatrist decided that, because I was gaining weight and extra fluid, I needed a higher dose of my anti-psychotic to get any decent effect. An aside - many individuals with Bipolar Disorder use anti-psychotic medication as a mood stabilizer, a way to manage and prevent mania. The name "anti-psychotic" is not particularly descriptive or useful.
Over the course of the next few weeks, my dose was steadily increased, until I was taking nearly double the amount that I was pre-pregnancy. I had also started using Diazepam to allow me an hour or two of rest occasionally. Oh, and a huge whack of sleeping tablets every night.
Fast forward to my 36th week of pregnancy and you will find me admitted to the maternity ward in Aberystwyth, because the poor midwives didn't know what to do with me anymore. My own community midwive was a real life angel, pushing for more support for me all the time. I had pitched up at the ward several times over the previous few weeks, with high anxiety, panic and this excruciating agitation and intense hourly Braxton Hicks (yes, my ENTIRE body was on high alert).
I was often in floods of tears, sobbing that I couldn't take anymore, that all these drugs were pointless, and my baby boy is getting more and more medication passed into his tiny system. To add to my insomnia and anxiety, I was now spending most of my time scrutinizing my baby's movements, convinced that he was struggling. I was hooked up to the monitor 80% of the time, persistent as I was in my belief that he was barely moving.
Eventually, talk turned to an early C Section. This caused a distinct split in my various care teams. My Mental Health Team were pushing the point that my unrelenting distress was doing no good for my baby and what sorry state was he going to find me in once he is born? There are no Perinatal Mental Health wards locally, so if my mental health deteriorated much more, I would be admitted to a general psychiatric ward, who knows where. Without my darling baby.
Naturally, my obstetric team had concerns about the risks of delivering early. However they could not deny the other risks of the medication that I really should not have been taking but could not do without. In particular, Diazepam (AKA Valium) is known to have a depressive effect on foetal lung function. At 36 weeks and 3 days, a decision was made to begin the course of steroid injections that would accelerate the development of my baby's lungs, and to then deliver him at 36 weeks and 6 days.
And where was I in all of this? To my eternal shame, I was sitting in my hospital bed, silently praying to end this pregnancy. I wanted to hold my child in my arms, to know that he was safe and well, but more than that, I wanted to stop this agonising mental horror show. To this day, and perhaps forever, when I look at my son, I feel intense guilt that I risked his life, his health, for my own selfish needs. Why could I not cope? Why could I not just suck it up and shut the fuck up. Stop moaning and be stronger.
So, I was transferred to Carmarthan hospital to be near the Special Care Baby Unit. Henry was about to come into the world. His name came to me the night before the surgery, when I had started to randomly reminisce about watching the Kenneth Branagh version of Henry V with my Dad as a child. I had no clue why I became fixated on this memory. Despite all that was going on, and all that was to come, I spent that night on Youtube watching my favourite scenes, listening to the soundtrack, in a kind of trance. It was such a comfort memory from my childhood, I suspect my exhausted and slightly psychotic brain had sought this child like comfort, and found it there. Henry. My baby. My warrior.
Once he had been delivered, he was shown to me briefly before being whisked away for the medical team to assess him and help him breathe. I was desperate for him, aching to hold him, but of course I couldn't. He was fighting hard, and it was all my fault. I had a full blown panic attack on the operating table (thank goodness for gas and air), and my partner and I just cried together.
I was moved to the post natal ward where I spent the night getting updates from my partner as he flitted between Henry and me. Bless his heart, I can only imagine how that must have been for him. Of course I was sharing the ward with mothers and their new born babies. Listening to the tiny bird like cries and the soothing sounds of their mums and dads, watching their visitors come and go with balloons and joy.
My heart was breaking, it was one of the worst pains I had ever known. And all of my own doing.
A kindly midwife came on shift and, when she heard that I had not yet seen Henry and that I was in a bay with other new mothers, she insisted that I be wheeled down to see him in my bed. If I could see her again I would tell her how much that meant to me, and still does.
I saw wee Henry hooked up to various machines, and I don't think I need to describe that moment. Tiny, but alive.
There was talk of an emergency transfer to Cardiff, in order to assess his brain function, but my little warrior pulled through, and 4 days later he was in my arms, and I was in a different trance - bliss. I couldn't take my eyes off him, couldn't stop kissing him.
We stayed in for another week because of complications with jaundice, but after that, it was plain sailing. My physical health returned to normal the minute he was born, the agitation disappeared immediately, and I was just another sleep deprived but adoring mum.
Today, Henry has just been discharged from the Paediatrician who has been monitoring his development following his oxygen deprivation, and everybody that knows him will tell you how bright, happy and adorable he is. Full of energy and mischief.
I love my children. Every single one of them fill my life with light and love (and exasperation and stress!) I hope that one day I will stop the eternal regret of the chaos of his birth, my failures as a mother. I did not mean this to be a "poor me" story. I am just sharing it because I need to speak it, trying to speak it out of an awful memory and into a thankful heart.
My written version of this story cannot come close to fully explaining or trying to describe what this period of our lives felt like. You would be looking at hundreds of pages.
Every pregnancy is different. It is not always easy, it is not always a delight. I used to work as a Nurse in a Perinatal Mental Health unit, and the majority of mothers that I nursed were suffering from debilitating post natal depression or psychosis. I only once saw a pregnant woman on that ward. Why? Not because mental illness in pregnancy does not exist. No. It is because women are ashamed to admit to it and healthcare professionals are not always on the look out for it.
I am currently involved in helping to educate these healthcare professionals, primarily through the healing medium of Yoga but also with my valuable, if traumatic, experience. I do not want this area of motherhood to fall hopelessly down yet another crack in the mental health services.
I would love to hear your own stories,re in your own words. But if you are not yet ready, I hope that I can offer some support and validation by sharing mine.