Olivia: My Saving Grace – by Tam Mason

My daughter has just had her 6th birthday. Looking back, the last 6 years have been like a rollercoaster in every way imaginable. I can honestly say it has been the best and the worst time of my life. I have an amazingly beautiful, talented daughter but my battle with PND, PTSD and anxiety has robbed me of so much during this time.

I have considered writing my experience down on paper for a while now but never been able to do it and when PANDAS asked for people to write about their experiences, I felt now was the time to share. I hope what I have been through may help someone else to feel not so alone, to know that they will get through the tough times and to feel the confidence to go and seek support.

Ok so here goes…. I’d always desperately wanted to be a mum, it was all I ever wanted to do. I have always worked with children so it all felt very natural. When I fell pregnant my husband and I were delighted.  After the initial euphoria, I embarked on a tough pregnancy. I didn’t bloom as I was lead to believe would happen but was plagued with constant morning sickness, a bump that felt too heavy from 18 weeks, heartburn, early Braxton hicks, lack of energy, anaemia, and a dislocated kneecap at 37 weeks. Despite everything I was pretty relaxed when labour started. I had a long (48 hours) and traumatic labour but was proud of myself for getting to 9cm dilated on a shot of pethidine and gas and air. But my tiredness by this stage and dehydration meant that my body had started to give up and the contractions stopped. Hormone drip and epidural followed, 2.5 hours of pushing, Olivia’s shoulders almost got stuck and eventually with the help of a ventouse and several cuts she was born. I had done it, my longed for baby girl was here, I remember so well the moment they placed her on my tummy and I was crying with happiness and relief. We were now a real family.

The euphoria was not to last though. I suddenly felt exhausted, and weak. It was if someone had flicked a switched.  I handed my daughter over to my husband as I could no longer hold her, she felt too heavy.  I felt odd, detached and overwhelmed but just told myself I was tired. The labour ward was very busy at that time and an hour later I was finally stitched up and transferred to the post natal ward. I don’t think I slept at all that night. The next day, I had a rally of visitors and I put on a smile despite this odd feeling remaining. I felt so weak but I’d just had a baby hadn’t I, of course I felt tired, this was how all new mums felt wasn’t it? I had expressed my concern to one of the midwives, who agree I was just tired and brought me some food and told me to rest but really I just wanted to go home. I knew I would feel better then. My iron level had to be tested for anaemia first and came back as being half of what a normal level is supposed to be and showing severe anaemia but no one seemed concerned and as they weren’t then neither was I? Despite my doubts, I begged to go home, so they let me go that evening.

It was only weeks/months after that, through follow up meetings with midwives, I learnt, that in the hour I waited to be stitched up I had lost a massive amount of blood and I should have received a blood transfusion before I left. They were unsure how I was still physically standing with an iron reading that low! And this was to take its toll in the coming weeks and months ahead.

When I returned home that night, I couldn’t climb the stairs and had to be helped. I knew it wasn’t right but I got into bed and I honestly don’t remember anymore of that first night at home. The next weeks were quite honestly hell as nights turned into days and vice versa.

I couldn’t breastfeed due to my poor physical health and Olivia’s tongue tie but I tried so hard for those couple of weeks.  It was decided she should be moved onto formula milk because her skin was becoming dry and her lips were cracking indicating dehydration.

Visitors came and I cried every time someone went home, longing for them not to leave me feeling so awful and jealous that they could go back to their normal lives and mine had been turned upside down.

Everything had turned into a massive effort even the simplest of tasks, I could stand for only a few minutes before my legs felt wobbly, when washing in the shower I only could wash one part of me before getting too tired, I constantly felt like I was going to faint and my skin was deathly white. Over the coming months, my iron level crept up slowly and I felt stronger but by then I knew something really was wrong. I cried a lot, I felt low, anxious and in a constant state of panic. I didn’t like being left on my own for fear of what was going to happen to me and what would happen to my daughter and begged my husband not to go to work. I felt incapable of looking after her by myself and couldn’t bring myself to go out the house, I was too afraid. I couldn’t eat and couldn’t sleep. I was unable to sustain friendships and my marriage felt the strain. I felt alone and trapped in a life I didn’t want anymore. I re-lived Olivia’s birth over and over in my head and I didn’t want her anymore, I felt nothing and the sound of her cry was unbearable.

I remember the afternoon, 3 months later, when I broke down to my husband slumped at the bottom of the stairs and asked him to help me and he was straight on the phone to my Health Visitor. It was from then that I was diagnosed with PND, PTSD and anxiety and was referred to CBT/counselling.  I slowly began to feel better, more like myself and I coped and managed better and I put that down to the love and support of my family and my husband who kept me going through the harder times and who was always there. I had a lovely health visitor who visited me weekly for a year. My bond with Olivia got stronger and I can remember the day I first felt love for her when she was around 6 months, it was amazing! I was listening to Beyonce’s Halo song and it has remained ‘Olivia’s song’ ever since.

The next couple of years were very up and down and passed by in a bit of a blur but I eventually started to enjoy my new life as a mum. Unfortunately, I was suffering too much still to be able to return to the job that I loved when my maternity leave ended so I decided to become a ‘stay at home’ mum (probably one of the only things I thank this illness for, being able to see Olivia grow up completely has been an opportunity I wouldn’t otherwise had had!).  I started to get out more despite it still being very difficult, I met more ‘mum’ friends’ in my village and life got easier. When I felt brave enough to mention to people that I was suffering with PND, I was shocked at how many others did too or had done before. It was as if when I started talking about it, it gave others the opportunity to open up as well. As much as I hate the thought of others suffering in the way I have done, it felt like a comfort, I wasn’t on my own anymore. Then, I discovered PANDAS when Olivia was 4 and again found there were lots of other ladies out there, just like me who felt the same and had had similar experiences. I now volunteer for PANDAS, I manage the support groups team, a position I am very proud of and I won an award at this year’s PANDAS conference and awards for my volunteering, something which has given me a real boost of self confidence. I have met some wonderful, inspirational people through PANDAS, lots of who I am pleased to be able to call my friends and it has in some way turned my experience into something positive. I have a lot to thank PANDAS for.

I would be lying if I said that I didn’t still struggle, the anxiety still plagues me even now and often days feel really dark but I think I know how to manage it. I still have regular counselling and CBT sessions and I feel these are really beneficial. I try not to let how I feel get the better of me too much but I now accept the things I can and can’t do and recognise the days I just need to give myself a break and not put the pressure on myself. On the not so good days, I have my PANDAS family to turn to for support and I am very thankful for that. Unfortunately, Olivia will remain an only child. I won’t be having another baby and this is probably the hardest part of my experience of post natal illness to come to terms with, but time will be a healer I’m sure. I can’t put myself through anymore and my husband and daughter have had their fair share. It’s had a big impact on us all. I’m ashamed to say, I struggle to be around women who are pregnant, and those with tiny babies still but I’m working on this and hopefully one day I’ll feel comfortable with the situation I have found myself in. Right now though I feel that this illness has robbed me of the chance to have the family I had always dreamed of and I can’t forgive it for that, but at the same time I am very, very lucky. I have Olivia, who I love so very much and we are so incredibly close now, I couldn’t be without her.  She is growing into caring, kind and clever girl who makes me so very proud. I hope she doesn’t remember much of her ‘unhappy’ mummy when she was younger but if she does I hope she will understand when I explain it to her when she is older, that this was just part of Mummy’s illness and she will be proud of me for fighting through and for always putting her first and doing my best. Post natal illness may have taken her early years from me, I can’t remember much of them but I won’t let it deny me of the amazing future that we have together!

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