Welcome to Lanterns Partners, Family & Friends!
Hampshire Lanterns want to help support Partners, Family members and Friends (a.k.a. carers) who have a loved one with mental health problems in the perinatal period. We currently have a small group of dads, founding members of Hampshire Lanterns and health professionals setting up this vital support network. Any help is appreciated so please get in touch if you wish to help out in any way.
At our first Lanterns Family & Friends meeting the dads present felt blog posts would be valuable, we also discussed producing information leaflets and videos which are underway and finally there is a separate Facebook group for those helping set this all up. Hampshire Perinatal Team are also setting up a support group for those whose loved one requires treatment at the Winchester Mother and Baby Unit and we are helping them with the development of that group too.
You can read our first Dad’s blog post below.
How did that happen? – A Dad’s Story
(Names have been changed to preserve anonymity)
‘So, how’s your mental health been?’
It always seemed like such a pointless question. Throughout the pregnancy, Jenny had been radiant, full of life and optimism, positive about the future that lay ahead once our first child (a son, our impatient selves had discovered at the earliest possible opportunity) arrived on the scene. Her mental health? No problems there. Nothing to note. Nothing to share.
A prior bout of work-related depression was the prompt for the nurse’s question. The timing of the pregnancy had meant that Sertraline was still swimming in her system but we had been assured that there was nothing to fear. Just one night of monitoring after the birth and we’d be heading home for the customary champagne and the company of friends ogling the newest member of the clan.
Even one night in hospital seemed excessive at the time. Daniel had sprung into the world at hyper-speed, barely waiting for a bed, let alone the correct room on the maternity ward. Having packed provisions for a protracted labour, we suddenly found ourselves flung into parenthood within thirty minutes of arrival. Jenny laughed, I cried and Daniel scanned his new surroundings, even posing for an impromptu video for eager grandparents across the country.
‘I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a mum laugh straight after giving birth,’ a midwife mused, our distracted minds too absorbed in our son to question whether this might mean anything. However, five days later, as I sat crying in the car park of the Mother and Baby Unit in Winchester at 3am, the time for questions was over. Something was seriously wrong and I had been powerless to prevent it.
Having struggled with breastfeeding in the early hours of motherhood, Jenny and Daniel were whisked away to a countryside birthing centre for what I presumed would be a day or two of support, just to make sure we’d be fine when alone at home. Already, I began to grow impatient, frustrated by the cross-city drive I was having to do when all I wanted was to have my family at home, and yet this was nothing in comparison to what was happening inside Jenny’s head.
While sleepless nights and feeding pain had left her stressed and upset, I was oblivious to the true scale of her struggle and blithely set about organising the long-overdue Champagne welcome. Texts were sent, bags were packed and hopes were raised. Finally, the family would be coming home.
It was then that the transformation came. Indecisive by nature, Jenny suddenly became unable to cope with even the smallest decision, breaking down one minute and then laughing the next. She paced around with restlessness and then, as I was left to monitor Daniel, I would hear wailing, howling, groaning filling the corridors of the hospital. This was no baby’s cry. This was my wife.
‘I’m not myself,’ she would choke through the tears, burrowing her head into the supportive embrace of the nearest nurse. I continued to make excuses for her behaviour in my head, assuming this was just sadness at leaving a place that had offered such comfort at this precious time, and yet I couldn’t have been more wrong.
An ambulance was called to transport Jenny and Daniel back to the hospital, while I was instructed to follow in the car, still unaware of what was really happening. I quickly texted our friends to postpone the drinks and called both sets of parents with the news.
But what was the news? Separated from Daniel at the hospital, we waited for someone to advise, to assess, to explain. Hours of isolation ticked by, as day turned to night, with only the intermittent journey down the corridor to check on Daniel disturbing the monotony of the endless waiting. Visiting my son in a separate part of the hospital while my wife sat a distance, monitored by a nurse, was a surreal experience, particularly as he lay beside children who were clearly suffering from a variety of afflictions. And yet, my son was well, eager and ready to sleep in his own Moses basket in his own house. He didn’t need to be here.
Following the long-awaited visit from the out-of-hours mental health team, it became clear that none of us had a choice where we would be.
‘We have a bed for you in Winchester,’ they assured us.
Winchester? Why would we go to Winchester? We were supposed to be going home.
For the second time that day, I followed an ambulance in convoy. Only this time the destination was unknown. Weaving round the winding road spiralling into the depths of the valley, as though we were being transported into an underground world, the ambulance led us to the dark entrance that would become unwelcomingly familiar. Ushered in the side-door under cover of darkness, we trundled down the corridor to an empty room. A room with one single bed and a cot.
It was after 3am when I returned to the car. My wife lay barely 200 yards away and yet the distance between us had never felt greater. I recognised so little of what I had seen and heard and now the family that I had been preparing to bring home had been cruelly torn apart. Even Daniel lay a safe distance away in the nursery, the responsibility of the night staff and not the mother who had so recently cradled him into the world. I drove home on autopilot, my hazy eyes barely acknowledging the road before me.
The diagnosis, and an answer of sorts, soon came: symptoms consistent with postpartum psychosis. Postpartum what? I had certainly never heard of it and I knew even less about what it meant and how we would treat it. Yet, the medication had started and Jenny would begin to get better, I was assured. We had caught it just in time. The protracted stay in the birthing centre that had aggravated me had most likely saved us from the truly psychotic elements of the illness. The nurses had quite possibly saved Jenny’s life.
Becoming a father had been an overwhelming joy and yet seeing my wife suffer to such an extent had been so intensely distressing that I was left not knowing what to feel. In many ways, I still don’t.
The two weeks during which she recovered to the point of finally making that trek home felt like an eternity and each day remained a struggle, with fragile emotions teetering on the brink at every turn. Exhausted and debilitated, the voyage home was void of the exultation I should have been feeling. Instead, I just felt relief. Relief that we could finally have the life I expected us to have.
Despite having waved goodbye to Melbury Lodge with sincere thankfulness, I had truly resented the fact that we had spent any time there at all and I was desperate to never step foot in the building again. Little did I know that, barely nine months later, we would not only be returning but we would be bedding in for a prolonged stay of seven weeks.
The intervening months had brought an array of unexpected challenges. With sustained, undisturbed sleep being prescribed as vital for her recovery, Jenny’s anticipated role as the night-feeder never quite materialised and I found myself mixing formula at all sorts of unsociable hours, regardless of whether or not I had a full day of work ahead. I also found myself sharing my house with my mother-in-law, whose presence my wife found a great help in enabling her to slowly build her crumbling confidence. The privacy of the new family unit was unavoidably intruded upon and new bonds were formed as we worked together to support both mother and baby.
The medication had worked – to an extent. While Jenny’s mood was largely stable, she still became easily tearful and lacked belief in her ability as a mum. And, even though she would sleep soundly at night, lethargy would set in during the day and it became clear that it would not be sustainable for her to remain on the same medicine as Daniel’s nap time reduced and his movements grew ever more active.
We flirted with the prospect of returning to the Lodge but I was steadfastly opposed to the idea, still scarred by the first experience and eager to do anything to avoid reopening the wound. However, when Jenny found herself unable to cope at a family social occasion, members of both families rallied around us with one clear message: ‘Jenny needs to go back to hospital to get this sorted’. I said I would reflect on the possibility but I was still set against it, yet as I returned to work and Jenny stayed on for some valuable time with her family I was informed that a decision had been made. Jenny had called the unit and a bed was indeed available.
‘It’ll just be for a couple of weeks for a medicine change,’ she promised me. Somehow, I knew that it would never be as easy as it sounded. Knowing what things were like the first time around increased my anxiety, if anything. While I knew how impressive the facility was, I also knew exactly what I was letting myself in for. People rarely experience intense pain and then seek out that scenario again and yet this is what I was being forced to revisit, whether I liked it or not. This was all about Jenny getting better and so, however much I yearned for there to be any other solution, I knew that I ultimately had no choice.
A couple of weeks became seven. At her worst, Jenny plumbed depths that exceeded where she had been the first time around, and I witnessed some incredibly distressing scenes. Jenny had always been the light in my life, the bubbly, joyful, upbeat one in our marriage who had lifted me out of times of sadness. Here, she was a broken woman, reduced to a childlike state and devoid of all confidence in her ability to look after Daniel. Tears flowed freely, as though no-one could reach the tap to bring relief, and it mattered not whether the scene was public or private. She spoke like I have never heard her speak and she flipped between smiles and sadness without hesitation, as though her moods were controlled by an external presence flicking a single switch on and off. All the while, Daniel remained unaffected and unaware, as the nurses and I did our best to fill in where Jenny wasn’t able.
For the majority of the stay, I continued to work full time in my job as a teacher, and I quickly slipped into a sort of double-life. No-one at work would have known the sorrow in my heart as I joked around with my classes and threw myself into my lessons, yet what choice did I have? Each day I would drive across a busy Winchester city centre to visit my wife and child in a secure Mother and Baby Unit, oblivious to what I might experience on each occasion. It was impossible to communicate to anyone else just what it felt like to have to endure such distress and, while loved ones continued to insist that I ‘looked after myself’ whenever possible, I quickly realised that I simply did not know what that meant and what that could look like. All I could do was to do my best to be the teacher the school needed me to be and the husband and father that my family needed me to be. At times, the two worlds seemed poles apart.
Recovery was a much slower process the second time around, and each trial visit home brought unexpected challenges that left me counting down the hours until I could drive Jenny and Daniel back to Winchester. However much I hated being apart from them, sometimes being together was simply too difficult. We were desperately clinging on to the hope that today would be the day that everything would slip back into normality but it wasn’t until the final tweak in medication that the path became walkable.
It is the same medication that has recently been tweaked once more – this time a minor increase to try and combat the lowest of lows – and it is likely to be the same medication, along with whatever unwelcome side-effects accompany it, for the foreseeable future. While walking out of Melbury Lodge over a year ago felt like a breakthrough of sorts, I sensed at the time that it was the end of that particular battle but not the conclusion of the war.
Medical professionals often compared Jenny’s health to the breaking of a leg to help us consider mental illness in the light of a physical affliction and yet, while the cast might come off a leg, the strength restored and the temporary limitations overcome, our experience of mental health has been that the recovery is not quite so straightforward. Two years and three months on from the initial illness, we are still facing a challenging present and an uncertain future. And yet we have a son who needs us to give our all for him, to love him, provide for him and give everything we can for him. Through the pain and the struggle, we continue to know and experience great joy.
‘So, how’s your mental health been?’ has become a far more complicated question to be asked and one that I am sure we will never take lightly again.