I woke up at 2.46am this morning, wide awake. I’m not sure if maybe Arabella stirred loudly and woke me but whatever it was I was suddenly very awake. For the next two hours I tossed and turned trying to force my brain to switch off but the worry was overwhelming. Various scenarios played out in my mind, what if when we pop to the shops in the morning to pick up some dishwasher tablets someone throws acid and we’re collateral. I could see the whole situation unfold, my face melting, Arabella screaming in pain. I stared at the ceiling willing my brain to calm down, the lady who takes my therapy sessions gave me a sheet to help go back to sleep when I awoke from nightmares. So I focused on my husband’s breathing and counted as the sheet instructed. But the irrational thoughts were stranger and pushed to the forefront, what if it’s not acid, what if there’s a gunman who comes into the shop – again I could see the various outcomes – me holding Arabella close to my chest, crouching down tucked behind the display of shampoo. I joke in my therapy sessions that perhaps I watch too much TV – how else do these crazy thoughts occur?!
I’ve attended 4 sessions of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) thus far. After the failed operation in February something shifted in my mind. Before this I’d had the normal new mum anxieties, don’t drop the baby, is the temperature ok in here, are they still breathing, is the milk the right temperature…..
I was told that the operation would be quick and easy, ‘a 10 minute job’ the surgeon told me whilst confirming my details. It was far from straight forward and the reality is that my life was on the line that day, I’ll be eternally grateful to blood donors, without whom I’d have spent a very long time in hospital recovering. And that the surgeons were eventually able to stem the bleeding. Suddenly everything that seemed straightforward before no longer was. If something that was meant to be so simple had gone so horribly wrong what was to say that other things couldn’t go south just as easily. Of course when I began to fret my husband simply told me ‘don’t be so silly’ and I can completely understand his response. The previous version of me would have said the exact same thing.
It took me almost 6 weeks to realise that I couldn’t overcome the way I was feeling and thinking on my own. 6 weeks of utter hell, feeling like a complete moron for being so irrationally fearful of the most simple things like crossing the road – in my head we were sure to be hit by an out of control car. I was constantly looking over my shoulder, twitchy, unsure of where the next threat was coming from. Leaving the house was stressful to say the least. And where my days were clouded with fear and worry my nights were filled with flashbacks – nightmares I’d wake from in a cold sweat, the sensation of the same pain, memory of waking with all the doctors over me. I was suffering post traumatic stress unbeknown to me. During this time we power walked pretty much everywhere – we needed to get from A to B as quickly as possible to avoid potential threats. I didn’t let anyone see that I was struggling mentally with day to day things. The flat had become my safe haven and I could easily hide behind not feeling well to avoid plans. I did crumple after a month or so, I snapped at my husband over something insignificant – he asked what was wrong, why was I so touchy… the flood gates opened. I felt completely helpless and finally I’d told someone. I didn’t share the extent of fears and worries, I didn’t want him to think I was an unfit mother, I didn’t want anyone to know I wasn’t 100%. I’d always been pretty tough emotionally, friends have joked about how stone cold I’d be at times. I found my predicament embarrassing.
During pregnancy I’d been quite anxious about birth and had been moved to specialist care meaning I had one midwife throughout my pregnancy. Patience – she was wonderful. It had taken me over half my pregnancy to admit I was very very worried about giving birth and seek help. I also had enhanced midwife visits after Arabella was born – I think they came maybe 5 times in the weeks that followed – they established that my fears were mainly over the actual process of giving birth and happily discharged me when they were certain I was ok mentally.
Maybe it was recognising that I needed some extra support during pregnancy that allowed me to recognise the need this time. I finally sought help when I took myself to see my midwife after one of my many check up ultrasound appointments between operations. After this particular appointment I was very tearful. The doctor had once again said, theres no change that we can see and we’d like to wait a little longer, come back in a few weeks – effectively sentencing me to another two weeks of feeling like crap, no energy, a fever and constant nausea with the piece of placenta still rotting inside of me.
As soon as I saw my midwife I burst into tears, she of course had no idea what had happened and I explained between sobs. I’m not sure she was expecting me to say what I had – what had led me to this point. She reassured me I was in good hands with the gynaecology team at the hospital and then suggested I get a referral to IAPTS (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies). I could self refer online, which I did as soon as I got home. She also wrote a letter to my GP, with my permission, and they then called me to check I was ok in case I needed to see someone sooner than IAPTS might take to speak to me. Up to this point I’d brushed off my worry and put it down to new mum over-protectiveness; I wanted to wrap my precious baby up in cotton wool. Of course from the moment she was born she became my most important focus, I’d have done anything to make sure she was ok. The hemangiomas and various hospital visits for her had been scary but she was thriving otherwise – a happy, healthy bundle of joy and despite me constantly feeling under the weather in the run up to that first operation we got out and about, with me worrying what I would say was a ‘normal’ amount (look twice when you cross the road etc.) I can see now that my fears had long surpassed ‘normal’; I’d dismounted countless buses because something didn’t feel right, I had actually ran away and down a side street on one occasion when I’d convinced myself there was about to be a terrorist attack.
My local IAPTS team called me within 10 days to conduct a questionnaire of sorts as an assessment. From there they established that I had post traumatic stress from the failed operation in February and that the event had triggered anxieties. I cried on the phone to the lady from IAPTS – I felt as though the world was a very big, dangerous place and that me and my family were under constant threat BUT by far the biggest reason I cried and I could barely speak to get the words out through the sobs – I didn’t want to tell anyone how I was feeling because I didn’t want anyone to think I was a bad mum and take Arabella away. She was my reason for getting out of bed each day, I found the confidence to leave the house only because I knew it was unfair to condemn her to solitude because of my fears. The thought of admitting I had a problem, a weakness that might make some question my ability as a mother. It was why I’d not admitted the way I was feeling sooner. By that time, on certain days, even the doorbell ringing was causing me to jump out of my skin. I knew I needed help to be the best mum to Arabella.
Four sessions in I can recognise when my thoughts are trailing off into dangerous territory that would likely cause me to spiral and my body go into fight or flight mode – I had no idea that my sweating and heart racing had been down to an involuntary instinctual physical reaction triggered by my brain sending panic messages. In those moments it is extremely difficult to rationalise the situation – CBT will help me find a way to break the cycle. I don’t quite have a handle on it just yet, I have at least another 8 sessions to go, but recognising the thoughts for what they are has enabled me to leave the house with more confidence. Each time I’m doing something that triggers anxieties and coming out the other side unharmed that confidence builds.
The strangest thing I’ve found is that my anxiety has not been a running constant – I’ll have good times and bad times. Last week I had a great week, a whole week of feeling positive with minimal negative thoughts. We attending baby classes Monday, Wednesday and Friday – ran errands on Tuesday and Thursday, saw countless mummy friends, I played hockey one evening and generally felt great. Then I went to a local fete type event on Saturday, some friends were attending and I was at a loose end whilst my husband had gone to play golf, as soon as I got there I felt completely overwhelmed; there was suddenly too much noise, too many people and way too much going on. I felt like a bomb could go off at any second, or some other sort of attack would take place. I tried to brave it, made small talk with our friends and took a walk around the stalls. After 20 minutes I made a feeble excuse and left.
My ‘homework’ this week from therapy is to capture how I feel before I attend something, whether or not I have any worries or fears and then how I actually felt when I was there and then afterwards. I’d believed that I was merrily clocking up positive experiences and then Saturday knocked me for six. There is no quick fix, the anxiety was born out of something that took place over the course of a day and has already marred 4 months of our lives.
To begin with I sought this help to be a better mum – my focus was on Arabella. Now I’m doing this for me, I lost track of myself completely when she was first born. I ignored my body breaking down for over 4 months before I went to the GP and they found I had retained products causing me to be pretty unwell. The love that pours out of you as a first time mum is all consuming, I forgot I was anything other than a mum. Not only is CBT helping with my anxieties which are primarily focused on the safety of my baby, it’s also helping me process better as an individual, something I believe will help me develop and grow. I’ll never be exactly the same person as I was before Arabella but that doesn’t mean I have to forget who I was and change altogether – it’s definitely a transitional period for anyone.
You’re not failing by asking for support.
I’ve tried to be open about attending therapy, to let a few friends and family know what’s going on, although I’ll admit I rarely share much detail and even writing this feels like over exposure but I’ve not shared that I’m writing a blog with my friends so it feels a little like ‘Dear Diary…’ sending my thoughts out onto the worldwide web.