I married young at the age of 19 to a man of the same age, exactly a year after my father passed away. It was a foolish deathbed promise I made my dad to marry that young and was much to the nervousness of my mother who said it would never work. At the age of 20 I had a planned, and blissfully uneventful, pregnancy giving birth to a beautiful baby girl at 42 weeks, exactly two weeks over my due date. It’s fair to say the labour was not as easy as the pregnancy itself and after a realisation by the midwifery team that Elysia, my daughter, could not be born without help she was delivered by emergency caesarean in March 1995. I was in my element; a young mum, very proud of my little bundle of joy who has grown up to be just as perfect now as she was then. My marriage, though, was not so perfect and after deciding we’d married too young (don’t you hate it when your mother’s right?), my husband and I divorced in 1998.
In 1999, I met a man too much like my father, unreliable with a roving eye and of course I fell in love with him. I fell pregnant around 18 months later. However, I was told at 10 weeks pregnant that “the pregnancy was not viable” and it ended in a heartbreaking miscarriage; not surprisingly the relationship didn’t survive either.
I met and married my second husband, Dean, in 2003. After only a short time of being together, and having never fully recovered physically from my miscarriage I was asked to have a laparoscopy (a routine key hole procedure to investigate gynaecological problems) and was diagnosed with endometriosis – the lining of my womb was growing extensively on my bladder and bowel.
I’ll never forget the consultant’s words at the hospital when she reached over, held my hand as I was coming round from the anaesthetic and told me to “think beyond having children now”. I was crushed. Although in the early stages of a new relationship, we had of course hoped for children at some point in the future.
In an effort to relieve the symptoms of my disease and in the hope of a subsequent pregnancy, I started an intensive course of treatment (injections in to my stomach every four weeks) which shut down my ovaries and caused a “pseudo menopause”, meaning I had to take hormone replacement therapy tablets and endured hot flushes and cold sweats every night for six months. I was just 27 years old.
Just over a year later I fell pregnant – my new husband and I were absolutely overjoyed. In fact overjoyed is an understatement.
So, when I began to wash my hands excessively during the pregnancy, I didn’t really think anything of it at first. I had experienced symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder since my teens and had suffered times when life seemed to be conspiring against me. But I had no reason to think I may be suffering with depression during my pregnancy. Crying in pregnancy was “perfectly normal” and how could I be miserable when I as so happy to be pregnant? Besides, I’d never heard of such a thing as “ante-natal depression” so it couldn’t exist. Could it?
Soon after the initial excitement of discovering I was pregnant, my behaviour changed. I wanted to stay in bed all the time. I didn’t go out of the house and I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Even with my husband and daughter, I was growing more and more irritable and withdrawn.
Once I passed the twelve week “watershed”, that gate of hope when doctors tell you your pregnancy is ‘safer’, I began to relax a little in to the pregnancy and the symptoms I experienced of checking my knickers for blood (when there was none or reason to think there may be) and over washing my hands seemed to ease.
Then at 18 weeks pregnant, I had what appeared to be a show of blood. On arriving at the hospital and after a student midwife’s bungled attempt to find the baby’s heartbeat, it transpired the baby was absolutely fine. I, on the other hand was not, and from that point on my pregnancy – and the welfare of my baby – was almost all I could think about.
Soon (although not soon enough), I was 32 weeks pregnant and a nervous wreck. I wouldn’t wear perfume or eat take-away in case I ‘contaminated’ the baby. I refused an eye test when the optician said he needed to put some dye in my eye to perform it even though he assured me the dye was less toxic than a pot noodle. I pointed out that I wouldn’t even eat a pot noodle whilst pregnant and made my excuses and left.
I was making weekly (if not more frequent) visits to the ante-natal ward to hear the baby’s heartbeat, although this rarely reassured me. I was eating just for the sake of it, and my weight increased from 11 stone to 13 stone in a matter of weeks. I was washing my hands repeatedly to the point where the skin was so tight and dry, my hands would bleed. (When I was talking to a journalist years later about this, we calculated between us that at its worst, my anxiety was causing me to wash my hands up to 200 times a day).
I was becoming increasingly paranoid and anxious, I began to think that the house we had just moved in to was haunted and I felt like everything – and everyone – was against me. I couldn’t sleep even though I was exhausted and I was crying, inconsolably, for what seemed like hours at a time.
Dean assumed it was my hormones and all part of pregnancy. This was his first experience of pregnancy and he didn’t know what to expect – but I did, and I knew I wasn’t well. (To this day, I feel for Dean that his experience seems as traumatic as mine). I took the bold decision to tell a friend, someone I’d known for over 15 years and who was also pregnant, that I felt incredibly anxious about my pregnancy and scared about what may happen beyond my control. She told me I attracted drama in to my life and if that was her, she’d tell herself to get on with it. I decided not to tell any more ‘friends’ or my family what was going on for fear of a similar reaction.
However, eventually, I decided to see my midwife and tell her everything. The way I saw it, I had nothing to lose if I was going mad anyway. When feeling at my worst, I had even contemplated – just for a brief and irrational but scary moment – the possibility that if I threw myself down the stairs, they’d have to get my baby out. I then realised this could kill not only me but the precious cargo I was carrying and so seeing the midwife and telling her my thoughts was the only option available for me. Remember, I desperately wanted this baby and if it meant that I was sectioned to ensure his safety, then that was how it had to be.
Fortunately for me, she did not call the men in white coats. I sat in her office and explained what I had been feeling. I didn’t care how crazy I sounded, I needed help and I felt I had to confide in someone for my sake and the baby’s. My midwife, Zoe, sat and listened until I’d finished talking.
You can imagine my shock when, to my complete amazement, she told me she understood and thought she might know what I was experiencing. She explained that some women when pregnant, suffer from ante-natal depression – depression in pregnancy – and this can be for a number of different reasons.
In my case, my overwhelming fear of losing the baby because of my previous experiences combined with the fact I had fallen pregnant under difficult circumstances. Some women experience it because the baby is unplanned or unwanted. Some because it affects their weight- all sorts of reasons. I was not alone. I left her office that day feeling as if I could breathe again.
After that, I had good days and bad days, but on the bad days I kept telling myself that I wasn’t going mad and tried to remain rational. It wasn’t easy and in the end my husband took time off work in the weeks leading up to the birth so that I didn’t have to be on my own at home. When my son was born, I cried hysterically – I was so happy and I could hardly believe he had made it. Little Harvey was born by caesarean in March 2004, two weeks early.
I began to research ante-natal depression by looking it up on the Internet, but could find little information. I discovered a research project carried out by Dr. Jonathan Evans, a senior lecturer from Bristol University, in 2001 and read this repeatedly with the relief of knowing I was not alone. At least one in ten women suffer from depression in pregnancy.
My midwife said there wasn’t enough known about ante-natal depression and asked me if I’d consider helping to set up a support group. I agreed and, having spoken to Dr Evans, agreed to write an article about it too. We all felt it was important to raise awareness of this illness and how important support can be.
Depression is an illness which requires acknowledgement, just like any other illness. If it hadn’t been for my midwife taking the time to listen, I honestly don’t know what may have happened at that time. I vividly remember the weight lifting from my shoulders when I heard her reassurances that I wasn’t a complete fruit.
This is my story but everyone is different, every situation unique. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) has recognised the role of medical professionals in spotting ante-natal depression and your midwife and doctor have a role and responsibility to look after both your physical and mental wellbeing in pregnancy which I talk about later. You can read these guidelines here.
My advice to anyone who recognises some of the experiences as I have described them here is to ask for help. Speak to your doctor and/or midwife. I doubt you’ll regret it.
I hope my story will go some way to helping people who can relate to some if not all of my experience to know they are not alone. I can look back on my experience and feel positive that some good has come from it and I hope that the subsequent pages will offer you some helpful insights in to what can help.