Once again, social media is full of exhortations to talk about it, to talk about depression and suicide and mental health in general, with the core message being: reach out. Because even if you don’t feel like it, somebody out there cares. It’s brought to my mind a very dark period of my life when my children were tiny, and how I sought help again and again, only to be continually rebuffed. Many mothers with serious mental health problems worry that their children might be taken away from them; I needn’t have had any concerns, as agencies didn’t seem to care enough about us to notice the impact of my appallingly poor mental health on my kids. 17 years on and I get much better care, but you can bet that there are parents all over the country living through a nightmare of postnatal illness and being told that they’re OK.
Anyway. Here we go. Three vignettes of seeking help.
As promised, the Community Psychiatric Nurse came to my door. I had no idea what to expect as I’d never met one before. I really wasn’t sure what her role was. I was hoping she’d have some sort of plan, a package of support she could offer that might just help me carry on, but she opened with a question. “So, what is you want from me, Charlotte?”
I was nonplussed. How was I supposed answer, when I didn’t yet know what she could do? “I don’t know,” I said. “I just…so I just came out of hospital because I took an overdose, and I’m trying to deal with that, I suppose.”
“I don’t know,” I repeated. “I’m not sure where I go from here.”
The nurse looked annoyed and gave a kind of chuckle of irritation. “Look, Charlotte, this is a service for people with serious mental health conditions.”
I flinched, probably visibly so. It had never occurred to me that taking a big overdose when I have very small children might not qualify as “having a serious mental health condition”. But clearly it didn’t, because the nurse was already standing up and putting on her jacket. “I don’t think there’s anything we can really do for you,” she was saying, “so I’ll feed that back to the team. If you need anything else, it’s back to your GP, OK?”
I nodded, and showed her to the door. I had felt like I was drowning in my feelings, but now I felt completely numb. Was that an improvement?
We tried yet another drug, sertraline this time, and Dr Fiore sent the Health Visitor round. I knew I had met Pat a couple of times when Alice was very tiny, but I didn’t feel as if I knew her at all. I made her a coffee and we sat and talk about normal things – how the children were growing, what a lovely sized living room I had – until she asked about my situation.
I decided to be honest. “I can’t cope,” I admitted, shrugging slightly. “That’s the bottom line. I can’t cope and I was stupid to think I’d ever be able to, with my mental health history. I should never have had kids.” Pat was already looking slightly shocked, but I persisted. Since I’d already started divulging all these awful, unsayable things I may as well carry on until I’d aired them all. “This is not how I wanted my life to be. I am a terrible mother.”
“Oh, you’re not!” Pat exclaimed reflexively, reaching over to touch my knee. “You’re a lovely mum!” I cringed, feeling I’d been told to keep my emotional messiness to myself. “I think, though,” she continued, rummaging in her bag, “we’d better just do this Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, is that OK? I’ll just pop today’s date on the top… You can use my pen, look. Have you got something you can lean on?” I reached for Max’s dinosaur encyclopaedia, which was always handy.
As you are pregnant, the form stated, or have recently had a baby, we would like to know how you are feeling. Ha! Thank God somebody did. I was instructed to read through each question and consider how I’d been feeling over the past seven days. I looked down the list. Had I been able to laugh and “see the funny side of things?” Well, but I wasn’t really sure what funny side was to being trapped in a house with two completely dependent children I was incapable of looking after. Had things been getting on top of me? I sighed and tick the box marked, “Most of the time I haven’t been able to cope at all.” Yes, I’d had difficulty sleeping. Yes, I was miserable and crying most of the time. Jesus. What a fucking pain I must be to live with. I paused at the last question, then decide to tell the truth: the thought of harming myself had, again, occurred to me “quite often.”
Alice stirred, grizzled. I handed Pat the form and put the baby to the breast while she reviewed my answers. “Hmm,” she frowned, rechecking the score, “you’ve come out very high. But I think that’s just because you’re so self-aware.” She put the lid back on her pen, satisfied. Oh. That was all right then. I’d be OK being suicidal as long as I knew I’m suicidal.
One day I flicked through the Yellow Pages, looking for support of any kind. The drugs were ineffective, Pat was hopeless and I was desperate, so I decided I’d call a parenting helpline. They would have heard it all before, surely? Maybe they could give me something to go on, some nugget of wisdom that would keep us all OK, get us through this afternoon? I occupied Max with yet another cartoon, feeling shitty about the TV as babysitter thing, and waited until Alice was asleep. I sat on the rug with the directory open beside me. The phone was weighty in my lap and it was a struggle to make myself lift the receiver and dial, a further struggle not to slam it quickly down again when a woman’s voice answered. She wanted to know why I was calling, so out it all spilled: the toddler who screamed all day and the baby who cried all evening, the sense of being trapped in my own house by the chill of winter and the unreliable public transport. How I mostly lacked the energy to go out anyway, and when I did I had to endure the humiliating supermarket tantrums and the frosty mums at the toddler groups. How desperate I was.
“Parenting is hard!” asserted the call handler, tutting. “You sound just like my daughter. I said to her, what did you think parenthood would be like? Little House on the Prairie?”
I pressed my finger down to end the call. No one. There was no one.
[Image shows an outstretched hand. Copyright Emanuele Longo via Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/em4nu/)