A mother's story
Posted Friday 30 March 2012
Sarah opens up about her postnatal mental health problems and the distressing and confusing feelings she had for her infant daughter. She wants to tackle the taboo around such difficult feelings.
Whenever I read in the news about a mum who has killed her child, I can’t help but think “that could have been me.” When I think about my daughter and the last time we saw each other; smiling, laughing, playing, singing, hugging, I find myself asking if our secret past ever actually happened? Did I really try to smother her when she was a baby?
I only have to shift my thoughts to social services and psychiatrists to know that yes - three years ago, I was a mum who had thoughts of harming her child. How did I end up so lost?
After the birth I was numb. Labour was long with no pain relief. I hallucinated; convinced we would both die. I didn’t bond with my baby; I saw her as an alien. Yet I was in a perpetual state of fear she would die. I had some strange beliefs. I was convinced my partner was having an affair; that I’d been carrying twins and one had been left inside me. I had nightmares and would see spiders outside the nursery window. I knew they were watching us. I felt like I was trapped, screaming. Our health visitor thought I was suffering from post-traumatic stress.
Her first birthday was when I knew something was very wrong. In the weeks leading up to it I became more and more distant, would space out and felt like I was in a bubble. Everyone around me was so excited yet I felt dead inside. Not long after her birthday I moved into my own place. I started to have harmful thoughts toward her, becoming afraid and withdrawn.
The night it happened is painful to write about. It was about 9pm and I felt strange. Time was moving slowly and all my senses were heightened. I took her bottle into her room and heard a deep voice. Wasn’t sure if it came from inside my head or somewhere else. I remember hearing, “I have to make it stop.”
I was terrified by what happened. The repercussions were serious. My daughter was taken from my care and placed with her father. My contact with her was stopped. My family were very supportive but it affected us all deeply.
I started to see her again under supervision. During this time I made some positive changes, settling into university and beginning personal therapy. I found writing down my feelings very helpful. I was then diagnosed with a personality disorder – borderline, histrionic and narcissistic traits.
The first year of therapy was tough. I’d go through times of feeling no connection to my daughter, other times I would feel overwhelmed by love and couldn’t understand why my feelings would oscillate. Every smile she gave me would be something I couldn’t enjoy for fear of one day losing it. I’d berate myself for not doing enough, or being enough. Even though I had these feelings I was always looking for ways to make it better. I looked everywhere I could for classes and courses. Help in these areas was lacking.
Slowly, through work in therapy I began to open up more, to understand my feelings toward my daughter and to see the world from her point of view. I got in touch with painful feelings from my own childhood which really helped. By the end of my first year in therapy our relationship was improving. I still found her birthday difficult and would withdraw; having thoughts of running away or never wanting to see her again. These setbacks were horrible. It was like a game of snakes and ladders - you’re almost at the end and you land on the snake which sends you all the way back down to the bottom.
This is what recovery can be like. Slow and difficult with relapses part of the process.
Halfway through therapy, a reversal was starting to happen. I was finding it hard to remember how detached I used to feel. From the outside looking in, I looked just like any other mum. Only this time I genuinely was. My biggest breakthrough came at the start of my third year at university. I realised how much of my thoughts and feelings toward my daughter were tangled up in emotions toward my own mum. For the first time since she was born, I started to fully embrace motherhood.
I now know I love my daughter, a question which eluded me for years. I am an advocate of positive parenting and believe my experiences of mental health have made me a better, not worse parent. Feeling “bad” motivates you to change.
I feel sick with remorse when I think back to what I did. It is difficult for me to allow myself to feel good about my parenting. I hope there are not many mums out there who had my experiences, but I also hope those who have, feel less alone.
My biggest fear in writing this blog is having others believe people with personality disorders are dangerous. I hope to send a message that personality disorders can be recovered from; that a dark start can have a bright future. Time to Change supports people to speak out about mental health. I feel there is much taboo about mothers having thoughts of harming their children. Stories like mine are not often spoken about and recovery is not often credited to people with personality disorder.
I know in my heart what sort of mother I am. I know who my daughter is and know what our relationship is like. I can’t change the past but I made sure I changed our future. People may judge me and speaking out about mental health is a risk. I believe however, not speaking out is a greater risk.
(This name has been changed to protect Sarah's daughter)
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