(Not) 2022 In Review

In keeping with a recent blog I wrote that had a very clear yet totally metaphoric ‘food’ theme. I wanted to continue the metaphor and write another blog in similar fashion, about my year.

I’ll start by saying, it’d be easy for me to write a tick box of the things I’ve achieved professionally in 2022.

Quit a job where the hours didn’t support the limitations of my disability ☑️

Published my first newspaper article and my first short story ☑️

Got nominated for a Mental Health Blogger award ☑️

Found a job that fuels my passions and hours I can work around my sick days☑️

But this isn’t LinkedIn and whilst these are great achievements, they’re the icing on the cake – not the cake itself. For me, the actual cake is all about the ingredients. The ingredients which I collected, gathered, thoughtfully and responsibly sourced and lovingly cooked up, once I realised what kind of cake my life had been lacking for, well…. ever!

Ok, let’s drop the metaphors for a moment. I think what I’m trying to to say is, for a long, long time, I was basing my value and happiness on the things I could do that weren’t limited by my health, both physical and mental. For example, I can’t run because of limited mobility, but telling people I was walking my way back to health just didn’t feel good enough. Spending a lot of time resting to avoid things that trigger my poor mental (and physical) health, well, it just doesn’t sound very productive. I always feel lacking in some way. I didn’t want to, and couldn’t, drink alcohol for most of 2022 because of medication, but saying I went for a really great breakfast date with my friend just felt lame amidst conversations of wild nights out and instaworthy excursions. I’ve seen friends so scarcely over the past year while watching everybody else, including my own mum, have a social life that would trump that of Kate Moss in her halcyon days.

I didn’t stick to regular baby groups or devote my time to the school’s PTA. I spent half of 2022 unable to even do the school run at all, because I couldn’t lift my son, and definitely not his pushchair out of the car on my own. Not least do both while holding my daughter’s hand. Instead of these things, I spent months trialling hormone replacements and cholesterol lowering medications, to lower my risk of both suicide and heart attack. And when the most exciting thing you did all year was stay overnight in a Mollies Diner with your six year old…. Well, it just doesn’t have the same ring to it as ‘I partied with my girlfriends on a hen do in Ibiza’ or ‘I took the family to Lapland for Christmas’ (Though Lapland is 100% on my bucket list)

That said, the ingredients I ended up finding and mixing for my own special 2022 cake, are worth sharing. They’re worth sharing because they’ve kept me alive, but not only that, they’ve actually made me pretty happy.

So here’s a list of that extra special ‘cake’ recipe I discovered during 2022.

Therapy is something I talk about a lot so won’t dwell on too much here… but it was previously something I had determinedly avoided really seeing through – that is until this year. I’ll say, one last time that I recommend everybody have a course of good quality therapy at least once in their lifetime. It really is life changing.

Liking myself was a close second in non negotiable ingredients for the perfect slice of life cake. Once I’d completed therapy and the shock of reliving past trauma had passed, I got serious about cutting myself some slack. All of the things I mentioned above that had me feeling lacking, were more a result of me just not really being okay with who I was and how my life had turned out. I didn’t do anything special to help like myself better, I just tried (and continue to try) to make sure that everything I do, I do with integrity. I’ve stopped doing things that leave me feeling bitter and agreeing to things I know I don’t really want to do. I could list many changes but the bottom line is self compassion.

Acceptance is the hardest one. It’s an ingredient I thought I would never be able to find and keep. I’ve spent a life time pretending I don’t care about situations I’ve been in, pretending to have accepted something unchangeable, but then remaining tightly wound and seething inside. Learning to really accept things for exactly as they are – is not easy, but once you master it – or in the case of the metaphorical cake – add a dash of it – it tastes great!

Quality time with the people I love. Real, meaningful, wholesome time. Conversations I’ll remember forever because I was present and listening. Being a reciprocating participant instead of being someone who shows up at surface level.

When I look back at this list of ‘ingredients’ I know that by following the ‘cooking guidelines’ consistently, that happiness can be found in a big ol’ slice of this cake.

🥳 Happy New Year 🥳

5 ‘Therapies’ that don’t involve a therapist.

My world has been spinning out of control again recently. I’ve felt once again overwhelmed and incapable of coping with so much responsibility whilst being so unwell. I’ve not felt like ‘me’ and some days, I’ve not been able to articulate what being ‘me’ feels like. The worst part is -or one of the worst part(s)- as I come out the other side now, is, I know all of these feelings are down to PMDD. Yes I still have overwhelming responsibilities and health issues, with seemingly endless insecurities, in spite of PMDD, but none of them feel as overwhelming when I’m not premenstrual. Such a scary illness… I can’t even… so I won’t…. Instead I’m going to list 5 things that have helped me cope and survive the past week during the latest luteal maelstrom.

I was lucky enough to spend the weekend in Weymouth with my mum and Ciara and truthfully, I had never needed the time away more. The weekend arrived when my panic and anxiety was highest in my cycle. Being around my mum is helpful because she’s very understanding. Though it’s still difficult sometimes to be around people when you’re not at your best. Below are some of the things that helped me through those days and I know they benefitted not only me, but Ciara and mum too.

1. Watching the sunrise.

There’s something so therapeutic about watching the sun rise. There’s a sacredness to being awake before the world officially starts it’s day. Of course there are always a few people milling around, but the first morning light is like a balm for my mind. Even better that this time I got to watch it by the sea. To view the sun’s reflection and listen to the waves lap at the same time is magical. I’ve always felt quite lonely and not very safe at the thought of going outside at the literal crack of dawn, but winter months bring a later sunrise and in the last fortnight I’ve made the effort to get up and out twice to watch it, and can report it was so worth it. There’s a placidity to it that calms my jangling nerves and puts me in a better place to start the day.

2. ‘Fancy’ dress-up

Let’s face it, we’d all like to pretend to be someone else once in a while, right? The sheer effort somedays to put a face of makeup on and make it outside is too much to bear thinking about, but somehow going out of the norm is strangely comforting. I loved being this witchy woman and picking pumpkins with my mini. I wasn’t even bothered at all the weird looks I got -and there were a few- if anything though, I got a confidence boost from them. Sounds weird I know, but with Halloween fast approaching there’s literally no better time to have a bash at being someone else.

3. Creative craft

It’s not ironic that I write my worst days. Ask any creative and they’ll tell you some of their best work was created during times of extreme stress or melancholy. Even without delving into the history of creatives and mental illness, for many of us craft and creativity can be a therapeutic outlet. In fact it’s even seen used in practice such as mindfulness and some forms of CBT. I often try to get creative with the kids when I or they are feeling stressed. It’s a great way to connect without any pressure. It’s something we both, particularly Ciara and I, find really relaxing. This (pictured) creative practise was simply ‘free’ drawing on pumpkins and it was soothing for us both, a great way to wind down from the day’s stressors or after lots of high intensity activity. It’s also a cute Halloween craft and a great idea for rainy days.

4. Creative Writing

As above. The creative process is a calming and therapeutic one. For me, words will always be my go-to outlet. Writing all my thoughts really does help me to process them. This notebook created by my friend and literary idol Emylia Hall, founder of the creative writing course Mothership Writers is full of motherhood writing prompts and gorgeous illustrations. It was the perfect accompaniment to a really rubbish week. I can honestly say I felt better during and after using it. It’s definitely going to be a permanent fixture in my self soothe kit.

5. Nature: Preferably involving wildlife

You don’t have to be an animal lover to appreciate the beauty of wildlife. Some of my favourite de-stress activities include animals in their natural habitat. When I first suffered with lingering PND after Ciara was born back in 2016, a common favourite was feeding the ducks and I’ve resorted back to doing this whenever I feel low. Earning the trust of wildlife requires being present and patient and that’s why it’s such a great grounding activity for when you feel as though you’re losing your mind. This little squirrel pictured, was a little too tame to be honest and made himself comfy on my thigh in wait for Ciara to snap open a monkey nut. It left me with a smile though, and there’s a lot to be said for simple pleasures.

This blog is not intended to substitute medical advice or the advice of a trained professional. If you need to speak to someone about your mental health, please make sure you do so. Be that your therapist, GP or an organisation such as Samaritans. And remember that if you’re concerned about your ability to keep yourself safe please call 999 or go to your nearest A&E.

In the interim though, these few simple, accessible and affordable techniques may help you focus on the present moment. Particularly for those rollercoaster mental health days that are often up and down. To prevent spiralling out of control all together, maybe one or two of these activities can help you process your thoughts a little more clearly. I’m by no means an expert, apart from in the field of my own lived experience, but everyday I am seeking small but manageable ways to be more mindful and regain a modicum of control over the often obsessive thoughts that plague me during both PMDD and times of high stress. We could all do with taking more breaks, and so I hope this blog will be helpful in encouraging you to do just that.

News

I’m delighted to announce I have been nominated for two categories in this years’ Mental Heath Blog Awards.

MHBA are a way to showcase patients and advocates in the mental health community and it’s an honour to have been nominated.

See full list of nominees and their categories here. Voting is open and it would mean the world to have your support. 💚

Please click here to vote. 🗳 🗳 🗳

It’s time…..

Confessions of a chronically ill mum #12

Three months I’ve been writing these, and they are basically just a way for me to brain dump, to offload and overshare. However, when I look back to number one, I can also see personal growth. Those confessions I wrote in the first few chapters of COACIM were so much bigger than the ones I’m bringing to you now, and that’s because things have changed.

So what’s been happening? A lot actually. But before I get into it, I have to admit that having Shaun off over Easter for a week was undeniably helpful. This week, I am feeling done in. My joints hurt, I have brain fog, migraine symptoms and generally feel under par. It’s only two weeks since I last felt like this which is proper shit as it means this menstrual cycle, PMDD and Fibro symptoms are massively overlapping, and ergo exacerbated. The last week of the Easter hols was just me and the kids, and surviving that after a week away and all of us contracting norovirus, along with my normal and new symptoms, was pretty tough going.

You know what though, I’m proud of me. I’ve been relentless with this PMD Awareness month stuff, now having raised over £500. I’ve had so much support, mostly from strangers online as per, and those IRL proper mates that show up for you whatever shit you’re spouting about on the gram. I also participated in two instagram lives, one with IAPMD and one with The PMDD Collective; you can check them out below.

LIVE with Brett from IAPMD
LIVE with Emily and Ally from
The PMDD Collective

I’ve finally got childcare sorted for going back to work. Kaiser has had his settling in sessions, he did really well, especially as it’s at two different settings. We’ve been together for such a long while now that I imagined him to be clingier, turns out if you have snacks and give him lots of attention, he’s anyones’

I have a few things going on health wise. Mentally, I’m trying to prepare for being discharged from the perinatal service, and it’ll come as no surprise that one of my confessions is that, I’m terrified. I’m worried of how I will measure up without a team of people supporting me and fighting my corner. Physically I’m still waiting on test results for a second diabetes check, and appointments for my heart issues as well as physio.

I’m due to return to my job in less than a week, so I’ll have to adjust to life back on the 9-5 for those two days. I’ll confess that I’m not looking forward to it. To say that I am would be a lie. In all honesty, it’s nothing to do with work, they’ve been great and supportive. It’s all to do with me! The reality is I don’t know how I’m going to fair as an increasingly disabled person, and mother of two other persons, back in the working world. With our financial situation as it is at the moment though, there is no other viable option and this makes me very stressed indeed. I feel like I am only just coming through my recovery journey of perinatal mental illness and regaining my mobility, whilst still managing an ever increasing list of health problems, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think work was going to upset the equilibrium I’ve finally established in my everyday life.

I’ve realised since being involved with IAPMD this month how much I love my advocacy work and I’d really love to be able to keep giving back, writing and making a difference but again, I don’t know how achievable that will be once I’m back doing what I have to, to put food on the table. That said I still really want to expand my blog, upload the fiction I’ve been working on and share that with you all. I also have a new interactive feature coming soon!

Dear Steph is a new agony aunt style feature where I’ll be answering your questions about almost anything! Just for fun. My friend Amy keeps on telling me how wise I am, and during my collaborative work with House21 I was often told I should cameo on their Dear Donna feature! So I thought fuck it, and decided to go for it.

I hope you’ll send in your problems or confessions for me to comment on to divamumsteph@hotmail.com adding Dear Steph in the subject line. It can be 100% anonymous if you so wish. Serious and funny/questions/problems welcome.

There are a few restrictions, mainly because I need to protect myself and make sure I’m offering support to anyone who writes in. (Knowing my luck nobody will -LOL)

Important to note, I’m not a professional so if your topic includes any of the following please seek professional support.

  • Sexual assault
  • Illegal activity
  • Health issues that require a medical opinion or further investigation.

I will happily give my advice, personal opinions and share my experience on mental health and or chronic illness, but if you require specific medical advice please seek support from a qualified practitioner.

I want to hear your most embarrassing moments and comment on them (no judgement here) I want to hear about your relationships, struggles, motherhood woes and workplace dramas. Is your mother in law driving you up the wall? Have you fallen out with your best friend? Maybe your partner is giving you the ick? Or are your kids’ as feral as mine and you need some reassurance that it gets easier? Basically I’m trying to fulfil one of my younger selfs’ dreams of having my own agony aunt column in the back of That’s Life magazine. So do me a solid and send in your woes and faux! Dear Steph will start as soon as your emails come in, and I’ll respond to one a week, once a week, on a Thursday.

PMDD Lightbulb Moments

This month is premenstrual disorder awareness month and I have teamed up with The International Association Of Premenstrual Disorders as a PMD Awareness Champion. Over the course of the month I’ll be sharing my personal experience of living with PMDD, as well as catching up with other PMDD warriors. This year’s theme is Connect The Dots and I talked to several women I’ve connected with via Instagram to find out how they connected the dots, between their hormones and their mental health.

I asked these brave women three questions which were: 

1. When was your ‘light bulb’ moment?
2. How did you connect the dots?
3. Do you feel as though you’ve found a manageable treatment and if so, would you mind sharing what that is?

I’ve included my own answers below too.

Me, Steph:

I can’t tell you exactly when I knew it was PMDD because hormonal changes have affected me my whole life.

If I look back now I can see how the most traumatic experiences in my life were either in relation to my menstrual cycle or my reaction to such experiences was exacerbated by my hormones and their fluctuating.

For me, I was quite aware of the fact that hormones played a big role in my life and on both my physical health and mood, from a young age. In childhood I had a hormone condition called Premature Adrenarche. PA is diagnosed when your adrenal glands over produce sex hormones. Adrenarche can happen in both male and females, but obviously for females and AFAB individuals, puberty means periods. A lot of my dot connecting came down to PMD’s running in my family, thus having knowledge of them from other sufferers. Since menarche my moods have been severe during luteal, so bad that I was diagnosed with clinical depression at 13 years old and prescribed antidepressants. I also attempted suicide. It wasn’t until some almost ten years later, and I got my first iPhone, that I started cycle tracking using an app. Along with my mum’s knowledge of my symptoms and their severity, we pieced it all together and it became apparent that my symptoms were very obviously cyclical.

Over the years I have had many successes followed by, ultimate failures with treatment. Many treatment options have worked for a limited amount of time, until 𝐏𝐌𝐃𝐃 comes back with a vengeance. For example I’ve tried countless antidepressants and birth control and they have all helped for a period, until they don’t anymore. I can also say it’s definitely worsened in severity and duration since having children. Symptoms have also increased, such as allergies. I’m now allergic to the hair dye I’ve been using for a decade and silver. Migraine is relentless and an attack lasts for days. Treatment wise, I have biweekly B12 injections, try to manage my sugar intake, take SSRI’s month round and use progesterone only contraception – The latter has limited success in the treatment of PMDD, but combined with other methods works ok for me at the moment. What I have found really useful is, since the birth of my son 9 months ago, I have been having intense Dialectal Behavioural Therapy. DBT involves learning distress tolerance skills, and how to dial down the intensity of emotions. Skills include using holistic treatments too such as cold therapy. I really feel DBT has been invaluable in treating symptoms of PMDD particularly.

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Lori:

After giving birth I began mapping how I was feeling along side some cbt for PTSD due to a traumatic birth experience and I started to realise every cycle I was physically and emotionally not well

Research, research, research

CBD oils have been amazing, I live with chronic pain which worsens around my cycle and impacts sleep so these help me get into a deeper sleep, SSRI’s all month too. And lastly, the fitbit app tracking my cycle to rationalise why I’m feeling the way I’m feeling (I can pretty much tell exactly when I’m about to ovulate or bleed based on my emotional state)

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Amy:

For me, it was when I stumbled across the PMDD Information page on the Mind website.

After years of various tests and being told by the doctor that I’m ‘fine’ this was huge. I ticked every single box for PMDD symptoms and I just knew that this was what I was going through each month.

I went back to the doctor armed with this new knowledge plus a symptom diary that i’d been keeping for the previous 6 months and they agreed that the diagnosis was PMDD.

Yes. But it’s just sticking to it that’s the problem! My go to treatments are regular B12 injections, keeping on top of my SSRI intake, Ice hats, pain medication, plus loads of water and trying to cut down on sugar and fatty foods (even though this can seem like the most impossible task in the universe, during hell week!)

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Jaimie:

My lightbulb moment came when the doctors kept telling me I was ‘just’ depressed and giving me SSRI’s and the pill and wouldn’t listen that I only felt this way some of the time rather than fully. Hormonal contraceptives do not agree with me and I knew there was more to it than that but trusted them that they know what they’re doing.

It took a long time but I noticed that I felt immediately relieved and lighter as soon as my period started so good old google came to the rescue and I started reading about PMDD

I felt like for the first time what I had been going through was valid and real when no one seemed to believe me or understand.

I just don’t know how bad each cycle is going to be, however I did find an SSRI useful for a while, they’re not for everyone and I no longer take them. I’ve found that taking things easier/slowing down and planning things for the parts of my cycle where I know I’ll be more positive and less likely to cancel helps because I don’t then feel like I’m letting people down or being unreliable which is a big thing for me – getting outside whenever you can works wonders too even if you don’t feel like it or it’s raining being in nature does more good than people realise

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Maisie:

My light bulb moment was when I was with my ex partner and he called me a psychopath. I was so upset and angry that I punched a hole in the wall. I scared myself with how angry I got. I was so angry that he called me that, but it made me think about what I had done to warrant that, and I thought “shit, I’m not a psychopath, but I’m not myself either, somewhere in between maybe”. It was going round and round in my head, and for a few days every month leading up to my period, I was so deeply upset, I didn’t want to be here, and it was like a cycle that I couldn’t get out of. Why am I like this? This isn’t me. But in the moment, I couldn’t see it.

It wasn’t until I was out the other side of those few days that I could reflect on my behaviour and feelings and realise properly that it ISNT me! I spoke to my GP, who put it down to “bad periods”.

I told them this wasn’t just bad periods, bad periods don’t make you suicidal, aggressive, or run away. Bad periods are tummy cramps and a heavy flow.

I pushed for more help, tests, anything. I was advised to have therapy for my dark thoughts, and they prescribed me SSRI’s. After I gave birth, they changed me to ca different SRRI. But the main help for me is telling my close people “it’s coming” or “it’s happening”. I find myself apologising in advance. “I’m not going to be myself for the next few days and I’m sorry”. Which makes me even more frustrated. No one that I have met so far, has ever heard of PMDD. Except a few queens on Insta! I try to explain it to people by saying “it’s like the volume is turned up full blast on everything. My emotions, the hurt, the anger.” You could say something to me on a normal day and I’d brush it off. But say the same thing to me on those few days and my world comes crashing down. The best treatment I’ve found more than telling people, or medication, or therapy, is reminding myself that it’s all in my head. Sometimes that can be hard, and it doesn’t take the thoughts or sadness or anger away, but it makes them more bearable, knowing that I am ill, not crazy. My ex partner didn’t help, but now he’s gone it’s so much clearer to see. I’m poorly. I have been diagnosed with PMDD, it’s not just in my head but at the same time that’s all it is. Finding others who are going through the same thing and trying to raise awareness for PMDD to others as well as medical professionals helps too. I felt like I was going mad, because I was told I was, and felt like I was. But it was all in my head and that’s where it stays. Like you say (sic) Cunty Carol just comes to visit a few days a week, and where I used to be terrified of her unpredictability, now I can at least say “fuck off Carol, I know why you’re here and I’m okay with it, close the door on your way out”

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Confessions of a chronically ill mum #9

Still horizontal. My pelvis has not improved. I still can’t drive and I still can’t get up and move around freely. What I have noticed though is how different my mindset has been this time being so disabled. I feel less…. Devastated. As if by some miracle I’m accepting the things that aren’t within my control and I’m just cracking on, regardless. I mean, let’s not pretend I’m not frustrated or upset at what I’m missing, the stress it causes and the worry being immobile brings, because of course, I am. But I’m not obsessing, ruminating, catastrophising or all of that other shit I’m so prone to doing when I can’t live the way I’d like. Maybe it’s therapy that has taught me to be more accepting, or maybe it’s the state of the world and my gratitude at having the life I do, even whilst it’s hard. Maybe it’s the spring weather. Maybe it’s because I’ve been bleeding for weeks and when I’m bleeding I’m at my best mentally. Maybe it’s just because luteal hasn’t punched me in the brain yet! Who knows, who cares, I’ll take this more ‘normal’ reaction to the situation and just be thankful for it.

What else is going on?

BIG NEWS. I’m fundraising for iapmd in April. The International Association for Premenstrual Disorders. I’ll be running a raffle and an auction and you can find details of both by visiting my Instagram page and tapping on PMDD raffle highlights. I’ve been blown away by the generosity from people donating prizes, especially in the current climate. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

But I’ll confess, I’ve also felt a bit disheartened that the buzz on my social media pages has dropped significantly since I started posting about the charity. I do understand that awareness posts will not land or resonate with everyone but it can be a bit of a kick in the guts when your friends don’t get on board to back you. The thing with socials is they are unfortunately slave to the algorithm and if people aren’t liking your posts, people aren’t seeing them, either. So remember even if you’re unable to donate, buy tickets or relate to the cause, a simple like or a share can make just as much difference and may reach people that are able to help. I also need to confess that whilst I’m coping better being so immobile I haven’t coped well with the atrocity that is our GP system. In fact I’ve coped so badly with it I lost my shit both with a receptionist and a pharmacist recently. And whilst I do believe both of them were antagonistic I still feel like my rage is sometimes something I have less control over. Firstly the physio I was referred to last October called me to say he’d never sent my referral to the hospital… he was apologetic and I thanked him for taking accountability, but I’ve been left without any physiotherapy for six months so some might argue it’s no wonder my mobility is worsening again. Anyway, then I requested medication and was told I’d have to wait 3 weeks to speak to a doctor to okay the meds. 3 weeks. They are psychiatric meds and I could of been on top of Clifton suspension bridge long before I got them. I’m not suicidal, but if I was in crisis this notion that we must just grin and bear it is, in my opinion not acceptable. The mental health crisis has long been a pandemic and with GP’s refusing to see people face to face the consequences are real for many. I feel both situations could have saved me a lot of stress and pain had I just been able to talk to a doctor there and then. 

Because of my limited mobility, I have been finding staying on track with the healthy eating harder, but I’m determined in whatever way I can to continue this journey of better nutrition. Though there have been days I’ve succumbed to a few treats, overall I’m still managing to reduce my portion intake and include more fruit and veg.

It’s Ciara’s birthday party next weekend and I’m really hoping I’m able to move better for that. However I know whatever happens she will have the best day. With the help of our families and support of all of her friends we’ll make sure it’s a good one. She’s such a beautiful, kind and sensitive soul, my daughter! She asked for a party this year INSTEAD of presents. What kind of amazing little kid offers to forfeit presents to spend the day with her friends. I mean it’s a good job she did because the party has cost an absolute fortune but we’ve still got her some gifts to open on the big day! She also lost another tooth, her third one, whilst her brother is just cutting his third. Speaking of Kaiser he now knows and responds to his name, nose, and Raa Raa (the noisy little lion) or Thomas (The tank engine) He still never sleeps though.

I guess for now that’s about all that’s new. I’m busy trying to manage my health before I’m due to go back to work in May, and I’m also soon to be discharged from the perinatal service so I just need to get my head around that. Bear with, and watch this space!

Love. Xxx

Confessions of a chronically ill mum.

I stood on my mum’s drive yesterday morning, trying to make plans to go for a walk together like we had earlier in the week. As I walked away from her with a ‘provisional’ plan for the following week, I felt sadness, embarrassment and shame. My mum is my best friend. I needn’t feel any of these things in her presence, but the truth is, I feel it in everyone’s presence. Since the beginning of December my physical health has been increasingly hard to manage. I have spent days in bed. My husband has had to take days off from work, and my daughter has said the words ‘when you feel better, mummy’ on repeat. I missed a visit to Santa with her, and I didn’t get to spend Boxing Day with family as was planned. Then on top of that, we all, everyone in our house, caught covid.

I’ve cried in pain holding my son and I’ve listened to his cries when I’ve been physically unable to hold him any longer.

I’ve also had good days. I had friends round and we toasted marshmallows in the garden. I sat through a pantomime with my son on my lap and my daughter by my side. I spent a night in a hotel with my husband. Following those days though, I suffered immensely for the privilege. That’s when life can be really sucky, when your body (and mind) punishes you, just for living. In the last two years I’ve abstained from alcohol. I’ve had one night out since August 2020. I’ve tried to eat better and I’ve tried to get enough sleep (not an easy feat with a baby.)

And I can say with honesty and confidence that I have done my best to partake in activities with my family. I have done my best to limit my symptoms. I’ve done an incredible amount of work on my mental health and I’ve worked through a lot of what was previously, unresolved trauma. I’ve fucking tried. But the thing with your health is, you can do everything right and still be unwell. You can do everything in your power to manage your illnesses and still suffer flare ups. You can get eight hours sleep and still be bone weary fatigued as though someone has poured cement into your bones.

I’m writing this because it’s true. Not for sympathy, though I’ll be honest, more empathy is always welcome. I don’t gain anything from sharing my illness and it’s trials. It doesn’t serve me personally, but occasionally I’m told it helps other people. I’ve said before, but sympathy is in short supply when people realise your condition is long term but not life threatening. Not life threatening no, but it IS life limiting in some way, every single day.

I feel often as if managing my health is a full time job. Being a parent is a full time job. I have no time for my actual job, and no energy left for anything fun. For six months I have had medical appointments every week, often twice a week. I’ve been unable to walk, and then I’ve been able to walk, followed by days unable again.

I often write about holding onto the good days and I stand by that, but it does get tiresome when you feel like you’re always being punished for them. I’m not even talking always good days, sometimes it’s good hours followed by a migraine, or a surge of otherworldly fatigue so achingly exhausting that there’s nothing left to do but take to your bed. The trouble with taking to your bed when you have kids is, you rarely get the opportunity to do such a thing, and secondly, but probably more notably, you miss things.

My confession is, sometimes I find the responsibility of my illness on top of the responsibility of my kids so overwhelming I pray for oblivion. Sometimes I find time with my kids assaulting to my senses. And sometimes I feel so guilty for their plight having me as their mother that I wonder if they are better off without me. 

Thankfully, and going back to all of the ‘work’ I’ve done on my mental health this past year, I know this isn’t true. I know they love me including my flaws, health problems and weaknesses, not in spite of.

I guess the narrative for this blog was to get these feelings off my chest, and also remind myself that (and I’m sure I’ve used this quote before) but….

Bad days do not equal a bad life

It’s hard being a mum regardless of health, wealth or any of the other things that make life easier. Perinatal depression and anxiety do not discriminate, chronic illness, illnesses of any kind actually, do not discriminate. The world is a tough place to parent, and knowing this doesn’t make it easier, but it does remind me I’m not alone.

Sending love to anyone else feeling like they’re on their knees. Know this, better days are always coming.

Subtle break-throughs

If you suffer from anxiety, or the feeling of impending doom and inexplicable terror that comes with panic attacks, the debilitating calamity that is intrusive thoughts, the unrelenting personality shift before your menstrual cycle because of PMDD? I hear you. I see you. I am you.

If you suffer from one or all of the mental illnesses mentioned above, you will know that logic is about as far away from fear as is possible. You may as well fly a rocket to Mars and you’d be no closer to logical thoughts during a panic attack. I’ve been having therapy for five months. The single longest stint I’ve ever managed to stick at anything relating to my mental health that doesn’t come in a blister pack. Full disclosure I take the pills too, I need them, but therapy is a different level of healing. It’s eye opening, confronting and real hard graft.

During these five months I have had breakdowns, many breakdowns. I have also experienced breakthroughs. These tend to be subtler, less outwardly monumental, but I can tell you from experience they are transcendent and quite awe-inspiring when you become aware of them.

I’m going to give you an example of one of my recent breakthroughs.

I am currently waiting for several hospital appointments, one of them may end up being quite life defining so it’s pretty important. With anything of importance for me, almost always comes anxiety. Throw in a self diagnosed terminal illness via Dr Google and we’re talking full blown life limiting panic attacks. But, not this time. I got my appointment letter a few days after the referral was made, though supposed to be seen within two weeks the NHS backlog means the clinic are running two weeks behind. Where as this kind of delay would usually lead to more panic, endless overthinking and probable sleepless nights, something has shifted in me and I feel different.

My logical brain has always known that there is little point in worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet, but regardless of my knowledge I have never been able to stop myself from said worry.

Worrying about tomorrow, steals today’s joy.

After going through what I have in the last five months, being scared of my own brain and constantly coming up against new challenges in trying to change the way I think, I decided right at the beginning of my recovery that I no longer wanted to live in fear. Of course simply not wanting something isn’t usually enough to stop it from happening. But with subtle changes and a keen desire to get better, engaging and working hard during therapy sessions and opening up fully to my mental health team, I have noticed a shift. I still feel anxiety around the appointment of course, but anxiety itself is a normal healthy human response. It only becomes problematic when it interferes with our everyday lives. And in this instance, relating to this appointment….I’m so happy to say it’s not doing that.

I don’t want to waste time worrying about an outcome that I cannot predict or influence. I don’t want to fear the worst only to find out when the time comes that it’s not the worst, then look back regretfully that I had wasted precious moments living in fear.

What if it isn’t a tiger in the long grass? What if it’s just a fluffy little kitten?

I won’t bullshit you, I know I’m not always going to be able to rationalise in this way. So many factors contribute to my own personal experience with anxiety and panic, that there will inevitably be times when I falter, and times when I fall. But what I’m doing right now, today, is I’m saying no to worrying about things that aren’t within my control. Isn’t anxiety itself a deep rooted need to control our fears and possible catastrophes?

How did I get here?

  • I took on board the offerings of tips my therapist suggested, such as grounding and breathing techniques and practised them even when I didn’t believe in them.
  • I reminded myself that if there’s a possibility that my world might fall apart, there’s also a possibility, it won’t.
  • I take prescribed medication religiously and stick with it for the recommended amount of time.
  • I’m trying, I say trying because I don’t always succeed, to implement healthier lifestyle changes, such as getting more exercise and eating healthier.
  • I write my feelings. It’s a personal favourite in helping me to process them.
  • I try to stay more in the present moment.
  • I have an amazing mental health team that I talk to regularly, even when I don’t think I have anything to say.

I know these things aren’t easy to do, I know this because it’s taken me twenty years to even begin to start really healing. But along with the above list, I also believe that celebrating small wins is a great way to remind ourselves that even when we are not where we want to be, we are further forward than we once were.

Me this week on a particularly bad day. Reminding myself it’s just a bad day not a bad life.
Also me this week on a better day

Intrusive thoughts during the perinatal period

Some people when they hear the words intrusive thoughts automatically assume that the person experiencing said thoughts is hearing voices. Some people think OCD and others believe intrusive thoughts to be a sign that a person is bad, and will act on their thoughts.

With the exception of possible OCD, none of the above tend to be true.

So what are intrusive thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted and or distressing thoughts that are often reoccurring. They are likely to leave the thinker very upset, distressed, disgusted, confused and ashamed.

It is thought that 1 in 5 women and mothers will suffer perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, and 57% of those will have experienced intrusive thoughts. Mental health professionals are not entirely sure why more women in the perinatal period experience intrusive thoughts, but it’s believed to be related to a variety of hormonal, environmental, and emotional factors. That said it’s a common symptom of PMADS. Typically, the thoughts that occur in the PP (perinatal period) are fears that surround our children, ‘What if I harm the baby?’ But the thoughts don’t always stop at physical harm and can relate to sexual fears too.

To be clear before you read on, suffering from intrusive thoughts is NOT a reflection on a person’s character, desires or beliefs. The thoughts themselves go against all of our beliefs and natural instincts as mothers and do not align with our values, hence the very word for them being ‘intrusive.’ We don’t want these thoughts, we can’t bear them and it’s the very reason we are left feeling as though they are ruining our life.

During pregnancy with my second child I became overwhelmed with intrusive thoughts, some of them too weird and harrowing for me to share —though in some ways I wish I felt I could share them all, then maybe they wouldn’t consume my brain— It got so bad that at just shy of 38 weeks I was hospitalised, under psychiatric care, my labour was induced and I was medicated for my mental health.

After my son was born and I was again assessed by a psychiatrist, she told me thoughts that are harmful or as mentioned sexual in nature, are the most common type of intrusive thoughts during the perinatal period. I asked her why this was, and she gave me a fantastic analogy.

You have this tiny human to care for. It’s your most important job, above any other. The thoughts that you are having are in direct conflict with your own anxieties about what could happen to your child. The thoughts are the very things you want less than anything in the world to happen.

But how do you know I’m not just a psychopath? I asked.

‘Because psychopaths don’t phone me up hysterical about upsetting thoughts, Steph. That’s how I know you pose absolutely no risk to your children.’

At this stage I felt so out of my mind I didn’t know if I posed a risk to my children. I felt like I couldn’t think straight. But Dr Pysch was adamant about this, and though it didn’t ease the thoughts initially it helped me to understand I wasn’t alone and other women and new mothers went through this too. She then went on to say (I feel like this is a big one…) the only person you pose a risk to, is yourself with your judgement about the thoughts.

I found that particular line about judgement really interesting because I realised quite quickly that it WAS the judgement that was keeping me in a cycle of constant fight or flight.

I was overthinking every single thought and if I dared speak out about my thoughts, rather than feel better, I’d worry about other people’s judgement instead. That was until I met the most wonderful community psychiatric nurse. For the purpose of this blog I’m going to refer to him as Neo (He will appreciate the reference.) Neo has changed the way I think about intrusive thoughts, but more importantly the way I feel toward opening up about them.

Maternal OCD is a mental illness that affects women in the perinatal period and includes intrusive and obsessive thoughts followed by compulsions completed in order to relieve some of the discomfort from the thought.

Ironically for me, my most intrusive thoughts were about convincing myself I had, or was going to develop severe mental illness (the irony isn’t lost on me) I first believed I was developing psychosis, I was sure I would start to hear voices telling me to kill or harm my children. This made me feel disassociated often. Despite not actually hearing voices I was convinced they were coming and I would be sat in my bedroom listening for them. I later googled intrusive thoughts which convinced me I was suffering from severe OCD, despite not having any compulsions. Another common thought for me was passive suicidality, such as thinking I could just walk out in front of a lorry. Or consume all of the insulin in my possession.

When I discussed this with Neo my fear of OCD he went through a protocol of having me fill out an OCD assessment, and we discovered that yes I have obsessive and at times disturbing thoughts, but I don’t have the compulsions in the same way a person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder might. So why did I feel as though talking about my fears meant I was constantly reassurance seeking?

The truth was there may have been an element to seeking reassurance, but for the most part I was doing what I needed to do, engaging in therapy and discussing my fears.

Once I finally opened up and said aloud that one of my biggest fears was I didn’t want to be alone with my baby because I was terrified I would have a psychotic break and murder him whilst he slept, I was not only able to then unpack this thought and see it with clarity for what it was, just a thought. But I also learned that I’m not alone, not even a little bit.

The mind plays tricks on all of us occasionally and thoughts are the perfect segue into us believing we are not good people and therefore convincing us we’re unworthy of the love we so desperately NEED to give ourselves particularly in the early stages postpartum.

If we all talked about our deepest darkest thoughts we might be less bothered by them, but there is so much assumption and stigma attached to thoughts. People believe that if you think something you must feel it. With intrusive thoughts it’s the exact opposite.

The vulnerability of a woman who has just been through childbirth is like no other time in her life, the fear that we feel is immense. I know I personally believed if I told the truth about my thoughts immediately postpartum that my children would be taken away and I would have been sectioned.

You don’t have to open up about every thought in order to dismantle their hold on you though, you can put in to practise strategies and use them for all thoughts that cause you distress.

Neo recommended a book for me to read during the early stages of recovery and it’s called The Happiness Trap and is written by Australian doctor, Russ Harris.

In the pages of the happiness trap Harris provides tools to defuse yourself from negative thoughts and the book itself centres very much on acceptance. It took me a while to come round to the idea that I would ever accept distressing thoughts, but the idea is not to engage with them, just to accept them for what they are, random mental events and words. I won’t say I’m cured, because that would be a lie, but I’m working towards how to better manage intrusive thoughts and not allow them to take over my life.

Dr Russ Harris The Happiness Trap

If you’re suffering from intrusive thoughts in the perinatal period I would urge you to talk to your doctor. I know it’s hard, you may be feeling judged and terrified, but I promise you the road to recovery starts when you learn that you are not alone with these thoughts.

Other organisations that can provide help during the perinatal period are:

Included at the bottom of this page is a link to ‘Buy Me A Coffee’ (or book, in my case) please don’t be put off by this! 
Currently, Divamum makes no money, and whilst I love writing, in order to keep growing I have decided to accept donations.
Just to clarify you are in no way obligated to make a donation and at no point will this become mandatory, it’s just there as an optional extra for anyone who would like to and all information is available via the link.

https://www.buymeacoffee.com/Divamumsteph

104 days postpartum

It’s funny how days are marked by our worst memories and our great ones, are often lost in mind with no clearly accessible date and time attached to them.

At 5am on the 11th October I woke up, eyes barely even open before I was thrust deep into a panic attack. My body wracked by the sensations, my mind reeling from the racing thoughts. To say I was devastated is an understatement, this is the first acute anxiety attack I’ve had in just under three weeks. Three weeks isn’t very long to most people, but it felt joyous to be able to think clearly for a while without the feeling of dread hanging over me. Without ruminating and catastrophizing. Without the pain in my teeth from my clenched jaw. Without the fatigue that hits you after yet another night of insomnia. Sleep when the baby sleeps… haha, if only.

What I’ve noticed though, in the fifty something days since I last updated my postpartum progress, is how hard I’ve tried to implement grounding techniques. How dedicated I have been to my recovery. I started a new contraception eight weeks ago to try and eliminate my periods, ergo reducing symptoms of PMDD. I’ve been on similar contraceptives in the past for the same reason. In this instance I have bled non stop for eight weeks. I am so run down I have ulcers in my mouth and reoccurring shingles pain, requiring more medication to combat. Around the same time I started the new contraception, I also switched my migraine medication for a slow release version and this has helped immensely with preventing attacks.

My son is now fifteen weeks old, he can hold a toy in his hand, chatter and laugh. but he rarely sleeps. His charming little face is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen, that is when it’s not screwed up like a tomato that’s past it’s safe to eat stage, wrinkly in places and as red as hell.

In the last one hundred and four days I have felt every emotion to ever exist. My days are now spent trying to wrestle a screaming baby into a car seat I’m unable to lift, and reading books about Biff and Chip with the big kid. I don’t get any opportunity to rest, which is hard when you have an illness that requires it. I’m mortified to admit some weeks it takes me three attempts before I manage a shower, and even then it’s hurried.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, I find it much easier to remember all of the hard bits, the downs, the panic and the tears and I’m very good at choosing to ignore the successes. Deeming them unworthy in their minutiae. Such as; getting the baby down for a nap on the first attempt. Watching his sister cuddle up to him or gently bounce him in his bouncer with her foot, whilst idly watching yet another episode of Bluey. The beauty in the pumpkin patch photoshoot we’d had recently, a windy autumn day surrounded by orange and forest green, the memory of the rain pelting down on our clothes afterwards, and rushing home to drink hot chocolate.

Watching my son grow, though hard, has not been wholly clouded by my poor health. It’s been beautiful in so many ways, and I’ve enjoyed very much time spent with him. I can feel my confidence as a mother returning somewhat. I have my first night out coming up and I’m anxious. When my daughter was a baby I couldn’t wait to get out, feeling more than ever that I needed to let off steam. Now the only steam I’m interested in, is the steam coming from a freshly boiled kettle and the piping hot tea that comes after the boil.

My pelvis hasn’t healed, I am still struggling with walking as with any physical activity. Unfortunately, it does seem this is likely to be yet another long term problem, but we knew that was a possibility.

I use the word progress to explain how far I’ve come and it’s the reason I’m utterly disappointed when I come up against relapses like that earlier panic attack. Im devastated when Im unable to rationalise my intrusive thoughts. Yet in spite of relapses, hard days, long nights and tragically cold cups of PG tips, I’m grateful. Grateful for the support I’ve received from an amazing perinatal mental health team, from my family, and from those few close friends who selflessly and with conviction, care enough to remind me I’m doing ok.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, and there are many people whom have contributed to my progress. Thank you. And here’s hoping for another 100 days of progress to follow.

54 Days postpartum

23.08.21

My daughter was on her way to bed last night when out of nowhere panic hit me full force. My son, lying in the crook of my arm, suddenly started to spit milk out from the sides of his slow flow teat, and I realised, the hand that was holding his bottle was shaking. I felt hot, from the feet up, like a flush, my brain scrambling for grounding thoughts that just couldn’t make their way to the forefront of my mind. It’s coming I thought, knowingly.

My husband comes when I call, and holds me tight. Our son, bewildered at why he’s suddenly had his bottle snatched from his mouth, our daughter, obliviously cleaning her teeth in the bathroom above our heads. Breathe Shaun tells me. Why am I like this???? I sob, trying to catch my breath. You’re not like anything, Steph. It’s a panic attack and it will pass. He reassures me, never letting me go.

It’s been 54 days since I gave birth. Our son will be 8 weeks old on Thursday 26th August.

This isn’t a birth story, because my birth story is too long, the trauma that surrounds my pregnancy will not shrink into an Instagram caption or a rushed blog post. This is a progress report.

When my son Kaiser was born, and during the days preceding, I was in a constant state of panic. I would have moments of calm, but they were fleeting and hard to grab onto. I’ve plateaued at a panic attack approximately once a week now. I know that a large part of their occurrence is directly linked to hormone sensitivity, yet that gives me no control or reassurance regarding their assault on my life.

I’m currently under the care of the most amazing perinatal mental health team, they are some of the best medical professionals I have ever come across in my entire life and I’ve met a few. Sadly this support was massively lacking during my pregnancy – but that is a story I’ve semi already told and one that would take up the duration of the rest of this blog. The point, is that I have some amazing people in my life at the moment helping me heal from acute anxiety, intrusive thoughts and various states of panic. I genuinely don’t believe without their consistent support during the postpartum period, that I would have gotten these bastard attacks down to once a week on my own.

The trouble is, I’m still very much in a state of fight or flight. During the periods of calm, I am logical. In fact I am probably calmer than I’ve ever been in my life and generally laid back (a term probably not often used to describe me as a person) but I can’t stay there, because as quick as I’m calm, a storm cloud opens up the heavens on my head and I am ready to flee the country as though I’m being chased by a hungry tiger.

However, during those moments of calm I have reflected. I have corrected, and I have made changes to my mindset. Living with chronic illnesses as I do, migraine, fibromyalgia, PMDD etc it’s easy to become all consumed by pain and suffering. The shift in my mindset has been that I don’t want to be consumed by this suffering anymore. I know I am going to suffer, bad days, sometimes bad weeks and maybe even bad months, but I don’t want it to consume me. I want change.

My community nurse said to me this week you have to do different to feel different and so I’m doing different. Every day I’m fighting tiny fires of fear. For example, I’m frightened of being alone with my kids in case I have a panic attack, but I’m staying alone with them anyway, because I know if I avoid this fear it will only grow.

I was absolutely distraught about Shaun returning to work after paternity leave, but I knew if he delayed that process I would be as scared, if not more so, when he eventually did.

I’ve been avoiding books and television that might be triggering or that contain storylines of anyone with mental illness, but very slowly I’m reintroducing those things into my life.

I’ve been too afraid to walk or drive anywhere on my own because of how much pain I’m in. What if I get stuck with the kids? And then what if whilst I’m stuck, I panic?

I’ve been too scared to enjoy days out for fear of repercussions on my body, or to go places more than half an hour away from my house in case I panic and need to flee, but slowly I am doing both.

I’m making this sound easy, and yet it’s been the hardest most hellish experience ever, doing things I’m so desperate to avoid goes against the grain. But I’m using these examples to measure my progress, because it’s so easy to feel as though I’m making absolutely no progress at all when anxiety strikes.

I want change. I want my life back. And I have to do different to feel different. I have to be open to the idea there are positive outcomes in life, because if I don’t open myself up to this possibility, I will forever be living half a life.

Perinatal anxiety and me

I’ve written a lot about this in the past, in my first pregnancy it became crippling and really took over my everyday. This time round I’ve had so many physical complications that although this doesn’t help anxiety, it’s actually been a distraction in lots of ways from worrying about all the other stuff that flits into my head when it feels like it. Sounds confusing, I know.

But whilst I’ve had so much to think about, different appointments every week and new ‘diagnoses’ popping up all over the shop I’ve not been left thinking about what will happen when the baby comes too much. Mainly because I’ve been too focused on getting him here in one piece just getting through the weeks. Now that’s coming to an imminent end, doubts are creeping in.

Can I really do this again?

What if I don’t enjoy it, what if I don’t bond with him?

We have no money and have accrued some debt trying to manage my disability this pregnancy. How will I afford a new baby?

What if all of the challenges I’ve been facing hit me after birth and I struggle with my mental health?

What if I have a break down?

What if my body doesn’t recover and I can’t physically care for these children?

What if I mess them up, and I’m just not good enough?

I shared my experience of severe SPD recently on another platform – not even going to link it because the article has been republished with false information and generally isn’t very accurate. That wasn’t the worst of it though, the comments section. WOW. Those things should be banned. One woman commented that I ‘couldn’t value my mobility or my children very much seeing as I chose to have another one even though I’d suffered in my first pregnancy and knew what was coming.’ Another said I ‘should have adopted.’ Another said my ‘husband looks depressed.’

Brutal, but senseless comments from people that know nothing about my life or what led to us having a second baby and the choices we had to make or the mental turmoil we deliberated over. But words once spoken or written can’t be undone. It hurts and it is something I’ve thought about myself often, questioned myself and agonised over in detail, even more so in recent weeks. Some of you may argue if you share online you automatically allow yourself to be subject to negativity and public scrutiny by default, but I counter that with – this is my personal journey we don’t get to question or invalidate people’s own experiences, their trauma, or their choices.

I’m not sleeping – I would say I’m not sleeping well, but I’m barely sleeping at all, having piled on an obscene amount of weight from being so immobile I seem to have developed sleep apnea and that in itself is anxiety provoking so I’m awake at night torturing myself with what ifs and worse case scenarios.

When the baby is born we have to stay in hospital for a minimum of a week, and the thought of being parted from Ciara for that long makes me emotional. The idea that my little girl won’t get to meet and hold her brother straight away, won’t get to cuddle her mum whilst she goes through the biggest change of her life, saddens me. I know and understand the reasoning, though I don’t agree that she isn’t allowed to visit. I get that it’s just a week in the grand scheme of things but I’m still sad about it. I still feel sad about lots of things. I feel sad because I haven’t enjoyed a minute of this pregnancy and at every opportunity I’ve wished it away, and now it’s coming to an end and I didn’t get to even like it.

After last week and me sharing good news that we’d hit a milestone – this week we had some conflicting information and not so great news again. My health hasn’t improved or stayed the same as we’d hope and is now deteriorating again at the final hurdle. It feels like one step forward and ten back as it has throughout this whole journey. Constantly. It’s draining. Some days I feel empowered to stay positive and I do try, but most I just feel physically and emotionally done.

I really wanted to like it this time.

I know with anxiety the whole concept is a bit ridiculous, (I don’t mean that in a critical way) what I mean is it’s a lot of worrying about things we can’t change, things we aren’t in control of, and things that haven’t even happened yet. But it’s also very real. It’s the thief of so much joy and it takes a lot of strength to overcome. Sometimes the battle is long, and other times we are better at controlling it. With parenting comes more anxiety, and it really is a never ending worry, hitting us all differently but equally at times.

I promise to always share the good and bad, and I do fear that maybe I share too much bad sometimes, but I’m just trying to keep it real during a time when I feel so up and down.

It’s like that; my life. It’s a rollercoaster of juggling my health, looking after my babies and trying to get some semblance of living a good life, enjoying it. And sometimes it really is a case of ‘well you were fine yesterday’ I know, crazy right? And today I’m losing my shit and that’s just me.

Anxiety is something that presents in strange ways. I find it really hard to communicate how anxiety effects me to people, even those who know me well. Most of them probably just think I’m a stressy, moaning old bitch (not wrong) but the reality is very different inside my head. For me, anxiety is often restlessness, sometimes accompanied by rage and anger, sometimes tears and fear. My natural instinct used to always be attack first, now it’s always defend, so I’m defensive when I feel attacked. I don’t even mean attacked by people, I also mean when I’m in a place or a situation that overwhelms me. This is another reason I’m worried about being in hospital, staying over night on a ward full of other people and noise, when these are real triggers for me. I don’t like being forced into situations, I like being solitary and if I want to have a cry or a scream I like do it in private. Being surrounded by other mums who’s babies need similar care post partum may be reassuring for many, but for me, it’s my idea of hell. I want to birth my baby, bring him home, lock all the doors and collapse into a heap so that I can process all the overriding emotions I’ve felt whilst carrying him.

Obviously hormones are factoring into my anxiety at the moment but even in general and pre pregnancy – when I feel anxious it can present in any of the three ‘fight, flight or freeze’ responses. It’s not linear. It’s not something that ever really leaves me, and there are times in my life when I’m really good at managing it, and other times when I just don’t feel like I can regain that control.

Luckily for me, I guess, is I’m good at recognising its onset so I am able to at least minimise its effects by surrounding myself with things that comfort me.

It’s all very well being under the mental health team, it’s all well and good reaching out to our GP’s but as far as I’ve found the last 9 months not a single one has listened to anything I’ve said. And whilst I hugely advocate for speaking out when you are struggling, sometimes you just don’t have the energy to force people to hear you, and sometimes you just don’t want to. So getting through in whichever way works is so important.

Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week

A topic so close to my heart and one that I always feel needs highlighting, but also one that I myself am finding particularly triggering at the moment – if you’ve been following my second pregnancy journey you’ll understand why. If you haven’t I’ll explain in short, that I am finding this pregnancy, similar to the first, in that it’s detrimental to my mental health.

Whilst this time round I don’t feel utter desperation and despair, I do feel hopeless and flat. My physical pain has hugely contributed to my mental health during pregnancy. I am so pleased to see maternal mental health reach such heights with awareness, but I feel it’s important to understand how intrinsically linked our physical and mental well-being is. Something that I feel is often overlooked for women who are pregnant and managing illness and physical challenges as well as poor mental health and low mood.

This will be my only post on maternal mental health this week, and the reason for that is stated above – I’m finding it all a bit triggering. I feel so lucky to have come so far on my journey of regaining my strength and mental stability after the birth of my daughter, but equally I feel a strong pull back to that dark time, right now.

There are a few messages that I often shout about in my need to highlight, and want to again here:

You can dislike pregnancy and still want your baby. You can resent the process and it’s toll on you and your body and still feel a deep connection to the life you’re creating.

You can feel sadness and loss at your sense of self in motherhood and still love your children.

Maternal mental health isn’t just present postnatally. It doesn’t just occur during the process of pregnancy or immediately after. It can strike at any time. It can be dark and all consuming, during phases of exhaustion and sleep deprivation, but it can also be triggered during the quagmire of everyday life. When you feel like the old you has gone missing for a while and the responsibility of caring for others takes it’s toll on you emotionally. It can occur with setbacks and regressions in your child’s life, and sometimes it will pop up at any given time it likes.

Postnatal depression isn’t always intrusive thoughts and hiding from the world. Sometimes it’s high functioning anxiety that actually powers you through the days only to hit you like a tonne of bricks when things seem to be going ok.

Depression and anxiety are not always prompted by birth trauma, or tragedy. It can manifest in many ways, sometimes presenting as irritable or snappy, other times as rage, bouts of tearfulness and friction at home. And sometimes it can creep up on you with a dull flatness, you may not even realise you feel depressed at all until the things you used to look forward to in life start to lose their appeal. The things that used to excite you suddenly don’t anymore and everything just feels a bit grey.

When I was pregnant with my daughter six years ago there was no such thing in my area as a perinatal mental health team. It shows great progress that such teams are now in place across the UK helping women come to terms with difficult emotions during and after pregnancy. It has definitely provided me with some reassurance when going through the process again. The only thing I will say that I feel to still be somewhat lacking and this doesn’t just refer to perinatal mental health but mental health in general, is there still isn’t enough preventative measures in place to support people who have a history of depression but aren’t currently depressed.

When I found out I was pregnant this time my anxiety was in full force but when referred to talking therapies I was deemed to score low on the mood charts and therefore not particularly high risk or in need of additional support. Unfortunately this is all too common when seeking support for mental health. I believe I know myself best and after having come through many bouts of poor mental health I feel I’m the best judge of character to preempt spirals. It’s frustrating when you know you could go either way but the support is only in great supply when you are close to crisis.

I’ve found great support this time in grassroots organisations such as Bluebell Care probably even more so than I have in my midwifery team.

Maternal mental health has been highlighted even more in the last year because of the pandemic and if anything good was to come from that it would be that we’re shining a light on mother’s struggling.

There’s a long way left to go and it’s not easy to be candid on such topics – but one thing I do know is that however you’re feeling, you’re not alone. It takes a great strength to open up about parenting struggles because societal judgement is still placed so heavily on a mother. Speaking up is the first step, becoming aware is the next one.

For more information on maternal mental health support please visit Maternal Mental Health Alliance

PMDD and pregnancy

April is PMDD Awareness Month and it’s something I’ve not talked about much since becoming pregnant again. PMDD directly corresponds with your menstrual cycle so in theory you should gain relief during pregnancy. However, and this is not fact, merely my personal experience, since PMDD causes an abnormal reaction to normal hormonal changes, whilst you may receive some relief during pregnancy it’s possible you still have a sensitivity to hormone fluctuations. As has been the case for me. Some symptoms are worse than ever before, particularly migraine and feelings of hopelessness.

The first trimester is often the worst for lots of pregnant women even in the absence of PMDD, the severity in hormonal changes tend to happen early in pregnancy and level out as your body becomes accustomed. It’s also thought women who suffer perinatal/postnatal depression may be at further risk for developing PMDD, and I can concur that the dip in hormones post pregnancy deeply affected me the first time around. With PMDD age has been another factor which effects the severity in symptoms for me personally. The older I get the worse my symptoms become. Often it has been the case for me where hormonal therapy such as contraception will provide short term relief only to later stop working with no rhyme or reason. Antidepressant medication can also help manage symptoms but again, long term they often need changing and finding the right type and dosage is a lot of trial and error.

After menarche, my PMDD was prominent, but back then at the age of just eleven nobody took my severe mood fluctuations seriously. At thirteen after attempting suicide I was prescribed antidepressants. It was only later when I started diarising my depression and severe mood swings that often included rage and toxic outbursts that I made the connection between them and my periods. Growing up, soon after enrolling in infants school and before menstruation, I was diagnosed with the hormone imbalance premature adrenarche. Though there is no scientific connection between PA and PMDD I feel this was all part of the same affliction, sensitivity to hormone changes affect me in a major way.

PMDD shouldn’t impact pregnancy in the sense that it alone won’t impact your ability to conceive. However trying for a baby whilst managing PMDD can be difficult, especially if you’re taking contraceptives to manage your symptoms, and or antidepressants. Fluoxetine or Prozac as it’s also known, is one of the more favourable SSRI’s for PMDD treatment. However it’s not recommended for pregnant women and therefore you may be asked to switch to a safer antidepressant or come off of them all together. This in itself can be a life altering (and in some cases life threatening) change that could impact your mental health during pregnancy too.

If your PMDD is severe and not responsive to treatment you may have considered sterilisation, which of course can put added pressure on you if you want to conceive. You might feel like you’re running out of time or you might feel forced to make the decision not to have children at all in order to manage your condition.

Though classified as a mental illness PMDD has many physical symptoms including joint paint, migraine and profound fatigue, that can often be mistaken or overlap with other illnesses, in my case my fibromyalgia is much worse when PMDD strikes and I know many other sufferers often get diagnosed with secondary conditions as a result of living with PMDD too.

Looking after your mental health must alway be a priority including during pregnancy, but it’s scary when you’re offered conflicting information and promises of symptom relief aren’t helpful either. ‘At least you get a break from PMDD’ is one of the most useless reassurances I’ve ever heard. Surely we know by now that even those of us with the same diagnoses will experience symptoms differently and bodily changes will impact us all in different ways. Pregnancy is one of the most obvious examples of this. Some women barely know they’re pregnant at all and others (like myself) find the process insufferable.

What’s important when considering all factors is finding a healthcare practitioner that is aware of your diagnoses and if they aren’t up to speed on what it means, they need to be willing to learn. When I found out I was pregnant this time, I specifically asked to be cared for by the perinatal mental health team, this has included regular discussions with a mental health consultant that specialises in reproductive health. It’s been invaluable for me to know that I have people on my healthcare team that understand and are knowledgeable in helping me look after myself during pregnancy. My most recent appointment with the consultant included discussions around further specialist referral for PMDD post pregnancy, and also the need for me to be prescribed antidepressants again post natal. Even if I don’t feel I need them I have a prescription ready and a doctor who is helping me monitor the impact.

Pregnancy is hard on our bodies, buts it’s equally as hard on our minds, and when you are prone to mental health problems or live with a mental illness already, specifically ones prone to intensify with hormone fluctuation, the need to receive the right healthcare is critical.

https://iapmd.org/ the international association for premenstrual disorders have a directory that can help you find doctors in your area that specialise in PMDD so do check them out.

A letter to myself.

I wrote this because I had to make sense of my thoughts as mother and an expectant one, one who is trying to find the strength to be both whilst battling the demons that are chronic illness and mental health.

Reach out they said, so you did, and it didn’t immediately help, and when it didn’t help people stopped reaching in. You are not their responsibility, this is not their fight, and they have their own shit going on. In the middle of a pandemic everyone has their own shit going on, some worse than yours. People can’t take on your shit too. They don’t want to, they shouldn’t have to, so what are you supposed to do now?

You have spoken to your doctor, you’ve got yourself in touch with organisations that can help support your mental health, but your physical health is declining further, your hormones are sending you crazy and you’re in limbo. You’ve requested help, but there’s no magic pill, no imminent cure for your troubles. So what happens next? You’ve written a thousand blogs, almost as many poems, you’ve cried, screamed and forced yourself to calm.

Keeping busy helps, keeping moving, except you can’t do anything because you’re immobile. Stay positive, think happy thoughts, so you try, really hard to do both but your mind is clouded in worry. You wonder sometimes if you have the strength to be the person everyone needs you to be. To get back some of your fire. You’re losing interest in the things that have previously brought you joy, like reading, and writing, you feel blocked. Getting outside is increasingly difficult and because you’re not going anywhere you’re not getting up and ‘ready’ because your whole body is racked with pain you’re not focusing on getting outside, it feels too hard.

You know you need to nourish your body to give your growing baby what it needs but even eating is becoming boring, a chore, you don’t have the ability to stand at a countertop and cook, you can’t be bothered to decide what to have next so takeaway’s are your go to, but they’re distorting the view of what you see in the mirror. Your need for medication increases with your pain and with that comes more guilt because it’s not just about you anymore.

You tried to do ‘yoga’ and got stuck on the floor for an hour with only your four year old home. You tried to shower but you can’t stand so even cleanliness is taking a backseat. You have to depend on your husband to help you in and out of the bath and you feel your self esteem being crushed further, your sense of humour no longer able to gloss over the hard parts with a funny anecdote.

People care, you know that, but they don’t know what to say, so they stop saying anything. You feel like a shit friend because you know your life is consumed by your disability and as much as they can’t take on your burdens you can’t take on theirs either, so thats another stick you can use to beat yourself with. You’re still trying to be everything everyone needs you to be but it’s draining. You feel like your lack of positivity confirms your worst fears – that you can’t be saved.

You feel more connected to strangers you talk to online than anyone you know in real life, because strangers can’t judge you in the same way friends can. They don’t expect you to man up, or try harder because your lack of effort doesn’t impact them.

You spend most days led down trying to find a focus, trying to be better, to do better, to find some joy in anything.

Glimmers of hope come from your loved ones. They carry on loving you despite your struggles and your children carry on depending on you. You know that without them, your life doesn’t mean all that much to you, but to them it’s everything it means everything, you are their everything and so you snatch the glimmers, you pocket them, and you remember that this period in time isn’t forever.

Your life isn’t what it used to be and you grieve it, desperately, sometimes so much that it physically hurts, but you’ve grieved it before and you’re still here, you still have a life. You still have a future. It’s a new version, and not everyone will walk your new journey with you, not because they don’t care (that’s just your brain telling you that) but maybe because they don’t understand and your own acceptance of the things you can’t change takes time.

Learning to live a newer life, a more conscious life, a life that has limitations, isn’t easy. Sometimes the grief will be daily and feel renewed, but someday, in your future you will look back on this time like you’ve looked back on all the other hard times, times you thought you couldn’t live through and you will know that you survived it. You survived it because you put one swollen foot in front of the other, because you held on when you thought there was no hope for you, and you found a way.

You know with certainty, that you have grown. This is a set back, this is not a failure, your health has declined as a result of you trying to do what’s best for your baby.

So Steph, the message is clear, when you really aren’t ok and you feel like you’re alone with your troubles, don’t take it day by day, don’t wait for tomorrow to be better, take it hour by hour, do the things that you feel able, even if that is nothing, because it won’t always be nothing. Each day that you wake up is you doing something. You’re surviving, and when you find a way to survive you can find a way to thrive.

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