A Northern Ireland mum has shared her experience of postnatal depression in the hope of helping others.
Claire Ellison says from a young age she wanted get married and have a baby and was “absolutely thrilled” when she and her fiancé discovered she was pregnant in April 2019 – three weeks before their wedding.
She explained the first 12 weeks of her pregnancy were relatively smooth but as weeks went on, things started to change.
Talking to ‘Have you seen that girl?’ an award-winning movement dedicated to raising awareness of maternal and parental mental health and sign-posting parents to help, Claire told her story.
“I became less excited and found it increasingly difficult to cope on my own when my husband was at work,” she said.
“I became extremely anxious – having frequent panic attacks and sometimes to the point where I would be physically sick. As my due date edged closer my anxiety levels were getting worse and worse and I had to take time off work.
“I became quite obsessed with the movements of the baby and worried that if I didn’t feel any kicks that something had happened.
(Image: Justin Kernoghan/Belfast Live)
“By the time I was 28 weeks pregnant, I was spending a significant portion of each day in tears, not wanting to leave the house and panicking in case I went into labour when my husband was at work. I would wake up in the middle of the night having panic attacks – especially if he was on night duty.
“I had also developed severe pelvic girdle pain which meant that even when I did leave the house, I was only able to walk for a very short period of time.
“At a consultant check up around 30 weeks – my husband managed to convince me to talk about how I had been feeling. I found this really difficult because I was scared to admit there was anything wrong and in case people would judge me.
“If I couldn’t cope without a baby, how was I going to manage when the child was born? The consultant prescribed me with medication and at the start I didn’t even want to take it because of the potential risks to the baby.”
After a few weeks of taking medication, Claire started to feel more normal – as normal as you can feel when you’re heavily pregnant.
She started maternity leave from work a few weeks earlier than planned because of the amount of pain she was in and a date was set with her consultant for her to be induced at 39 weeks.
Claire added: “We were called to come to the hospital for 10pm. At this point, I felt a glimmer of excitement that things were finally going to happen and we were going to meet our baby within the next couple of days.
“The next few days are a complete blur in my mind. I remember being induced shortly after I arrived and feeling contractions within a few hours. 48 hours later, I was still lying in the induction bay – waiting for a bed to become available on labour ward.
“My waters broke early in the morning on my third day in hospital but my labour was not progressing. The next morning, I was still in the induction bay, feeling exhausted, sore and completely fed up. Eventually – I was moved to labour ward on day four.
“I was given a drip to speed up my contractions and was using gas and air for pain relief. I asked for an epidural after a couple of hours but I was given Remifentanil while waiting for the anaesthetist.
“This is really the last thing I remember until I was given an epidural after nearly 10 hours. By midnight, the midwife told me that I was fully dilated and ready to push – but she would let me rest for an hour first.
“After an hour of pushing, I knew something wasn’t right. I couldn’t feel the baby moving down no matter how hard I tried. I was mentally and physically exhausted.
“A consultant was called in to assess me and she agreed that I should try pushing for another 30 minutes – but be prepped for theatre for an assisted delivery. Within 10 minutes, I was screaming to my husband that nothing was happening, I had nothing left to give and that I wanted a C-section.
“Another consultant came to assess me and told us the baby had not descended down the birth canal and was also becoming distressed with the heart rate going up and down. I was taken straight to theatre for an emergency Caesarean section.
“I remember being wheeled out of the room and hearing my husband being told to stay there. I remember the tears falling down my cheeks and feeling really panicked because I didn’t know what to expect or if the baby was OK.
“After what seemed like a lifetime, I opened my eyes to see the doctor’s head moving back and forth over the blue theatre screen.
“It was then that I realised she was on her hands and knees on top of me, trying to get the baby out. It transpired the baby had become lodged behind my pelvic bone and there was no chance I could ever have completed a natural delivery.”
When Claire’s baby was delivered, they were told it was a boy but he was taken straight to be worked on by the medical team as he needed help with his breathing.
“We didn’t hear anything for over eight minutes. Eventually we heard a small whimper and the nurse came to tell us that he was OK – just very shocked after what had been a traumatic delivery.
“We had decided to name our little boy Joel. When he was passed over to me and I held him for the first time, I didn’t feel the immediate rush of love that everyone talks about.
“Truthfully – I didn’t really feel anything. At that point, I put it down to being so exhausted.”
She recalls every night when her husband left, crying sore because she “felt so alone and useless”.
Claire added: “Before I left hospital – concerns had been raised that I may have an infection in my wound. However, I had no symptoms of anything and no pain so I was allowed to go home.
“Three days after getting home, the community midwife came to remove my dressing. Within 10 seconds of it being taken off, I was rolling around on the sofa, screaming because of the pain. We were told to go directly to the EOU and to leave Joel at home.
“At the hospital – I was given painkillers and prescribed antibiotics to help clear the infection and sent home. Over the next four weeks, I had to return to the hospital numerous times due to excessive pain. My medication was changed a total of three times and in the end I had to be re-admitted for three days to be given IV antibiotics.
“My first month as a mum was nothing like I expected. I had hoped to go to my brother and sister in laws wedding, I had hoped to have a relaxing Christmas getting used to life as a family of three and I had hoped that I would get settled into a routine of breastfeeding.
“I feel like I missed out on the newborn experience because the delivery was so traumatic and because of the health problems which followed.
“When my husband returned to work, it took me a long time to adjust to the lifestyle of having a baby. I was so preoccupied with making sure he was OK, that I failed to notice how quickly my mental health was going downhill.
“Physically, Joel was well cared for, I fed him, changed his nappy, cuddled him and played with him but I felt like I had no connection to him. It didn’t feel like he was my son. I felt like I was babysitting him for someone else.
“I cried multiple times every day and I was struggling with the lack of sleep. There were nights when I handed him to my husband and said take him away, I don’t want to feed him and I don’t want him anywhere near me. Then came the rush of guilt. Being brutally honest – I felt like he deserved to have a better mum who felt all the things for him that I couldn’t.”
Claire told the online forum that she had a lot of support from family and friends that that she tried to convince herself that her feelings were part of having a new baby and that things would get easier.
On her six week check up Claire was diagnosed with post natal depression and her medication was increased to a higher dose.
The medication took away the extremes of emotion she had been feeling but made her feel “numb” as in not happy nor sad.
Her husband works 12-hour shifts which meant she spent a lot of time alone and on days where Joel was unsettled or crying, she found herself becoming less able to cope with him.
She said: “I got frustrated, I screamed at him to shut up, I sat with my hands over my ears hoping that eventually he would stop or cry himself to sleep. Sometimes I still struggle with feeling any bond.
“Even when my husband was at home, there were times that I had to walk away because I was so worked up and I was frightened that I would lose control.
“At the first review of my medication, the doctor asked if things had improved. I told him about all the feelings and how I had found a sense of relief and release by physically pulling my hair out. After a long discussion, I agreed to a further increase in the dose my medication.
“This change brought the result I had been waiting for. I started to feel more like my old self. I started to enjoy playing with my son. I felt more comfortable with leaving the house and I had started to build up a good social routine on the days that my husband was at work.
“I met up with friends for coffee or lunch, signed up for baby swimming lessons, baby sensory and I was finally having the experience of what I always felt maternity leave should be like.
“Joel turned three months old on March 15, 2020. A week later came covid and the lockdowns.
“At the start I didn’t really feel any different. I was chatting to my friends via video calls and I actually found that I was enjoying having some time with Matthew to get to know Joel better with no distractions.
“As the weeks went on, I started to feel the negative feelings creeping back in.
“Then came the news I had been dreading – my husband’s work shifts were being changed and he was having to go back on night duty after doing more regular hours for nearly a year. This brought back all the fear and anxiety from when I was pregnant.
“I worry about Joel waking up and being unsettled and wonder if I could cope on my own. Even when my husband is at home – I sometimes find myself making the excuse that I’m tired and going for a nap to avoid having to go out.”
(Image: Justin Kernoghan/Belfast Live)
Speaking to Belfast Live, Lindsay Robinson, from ‘Have you seen that girl?’ said for the last six years, following her personal battle with severe perinatal mental illness, she’s been raising awareness of maternal mental health and campaigning for better services.
Lindsay said: “Timely access to services saves lives and changes lives. Mums, and their families, need and deserve them. Funding has thankfully been released by the Department of Health, for specialist services across NI – these are currently being designed and implemented.
“However, they alone are not enough. We need more funding for the community and voluntary sector, access to counselling and peer support and clearer referral pathways at all levels.
“Mums also need to know that there is no blame or shame in asking for help and that many parents struggle with their mental health and wellbeing, both antenatally and postnatally, and that they get support and recover.
“More than anything it is vital that the right help is available at the right time, for all women.”
For Claire, baby boy Joel has changed her life for the better.
She wrote in her blog: “I am fighting an ongoing battle with my mind – but it is a battle that I’m determined to win, no matter how long it takes. I feel exhausted constantly – mentally exhausted.
“If anyone had asked me before about what I thought having post natal depression was like – I would never have described it as I have experienced it.
“I have had incredible support from my parents, my in laws and particularly my husband Matthew since the very beginning.
“It’s incredibly difficult for him to understand what I’m going through but he has never once judged me or doubted me and I want to thank him for that. Last week we celebrated our first wedding anniversary – a highlight in what has been a very difficult year.
“My mum friends who have had similar experiences and even those who haven’t have been willing to listen and encourage me that things will get better and I’m so grateful to them for their love and support. I just regret not telling them the whole story sooner.
“I can only hope that as time passes, I will start to feel more like my old self.
“Finally, I want to thank my baby boy Joel. He has changed my life for the better, he loves me beyond measure and even when I feel like the worst mum ever, he doesn’t give up on me.”
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