This week saw the start of Mental Health Awareness week 2017. Mental health affects so many people in many different ways, and it’s a subject I’m passionate about raising awareness of. I breezed through life without suffering from any mental health issues – but that all changed after I had my son in June 2016. The baby bubble very quickly burst and I was left with feelings that I’d never experienced before, and ones that I couldn’t control. I was an emotional wreck, I felt isolated and shut off from the outside world, I felt like a failure – I was overwhelmed with this new tiny person who was relying on me to look after him, when in reality I didn’t even feel strong enough to look after myself.

I mentioned these feelings to both my health visitor and my GP, neither of which seemed to take me seriously. Luckily with some gentle encouragement from my family I slowly overcame my feelings of depression, although it took a number of months for me to feel confident enough to even leave the house with Max on my own, for fear that I wouldn’t be able to manage. But what about those people who do require additional help and support – it got me wondering where they go if their GP dismisses them? That’s when I heard about Mums & Families UK, a non profit organisation providing perinatal emotional wellbeing peer support. M&F (UK) provide ongoing group, one to one and virtual support to mums and their families across Essex and the UK and are the only place that offers their unique and proven  programme written, developed and delivered by Claire, a mum who was inspired to set up the organisation after her own harrowing ordeal following the birth of her baby girl.

I got in touch with Claire to see if she’d be able to share her story with you all, and I’m thrilled she said yes – so it’s over to you Claire………

I was blown away when Jo contacted me to ask if I would share my story. Jo initially made contact after her husband discovered Mums & Families UK which I am proud to be founder of. I took a look at Jo’s blog and was emotional to say the least, it really is true what they say about being kind to everyone you meet as everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Had I have met Jo without her knowing my story, or me knowing hers, we would both probably think we were mums who were happy and had our ‘shit together’, when in actual fact, we are both women who have been on our own extraordinary journey’s.

So where to start? I’m Claire, wife to Peter and mummy to Isla Rose who will be 3 in June 2017. The journey into pregnancy was fairly straightforward, despite being diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, Pete and I fell pregnant pretty much straight away. I had a fairly stressful pregnancy, not with Isla herself, but mainly down to moving house, stressful job situation – you get the idea. Isla was 9 days late, and I had a 39 hour labour – according to my midwives it was a ‘text book labour and delivery’ but it certainly didn’t feel that way to me, I felt traumatised and exhausted. This was just the start of the emotions and physical symptoms that no one tells you about.  Yes, I prepared for the sleepless nights as much as possible, but it took me a while to get my head round having given birth. The magic baby bubble I was expecting burst pretty quickly, and I started to experience distressing thoughts and scenarios surrounding the wellbeing of me and Isla. Thoughts that started with “what if?” Those two words were the enemy – “what if I go to bed and don’t wake up?”, “what if Isla is ill in the night and I don’t hear her?”, “what if I suddenly lose control and do something to hurt her?” It went on and on. The anxiety worsened and the thoughts felt relentless but I was terrified that if I spoke to my health visitor that they would take my baby away.

I sought help via a lady who claimed to be a hypnotherapist/counsellor/psychotherapist – I say claimed as due to my vulnerable state I didn’t check her credentials and trusted what she was saying to me that she was qualified and equipped to deal with my issues – she wasn’t! Despite regular assurances from her after divulging to her the nature of my thoughts over the course of two sessions, and parting with a lot of money, she reported me to social care. I will say this, whilst I understand that if a “professional” is given information that causes a potential safeguarding issue, they have a duty of care to act on that, but the way she did it was disgusting. You cannot give a person false reassurance and then go behind that person, it is so damaging and to be honest that was the biggest factor in what nearly cost me my life, as I felt that I couldn’t trust anyone. Being reported to social care was the biggest shock I think I have ever had. The last sentence this therapist said to me was that she wasn’t concerned in the slightest and that she’d had hundreds of women in my situation, even some she had saved from the brink of being sectioned. So because she said everything I needed to hear – I trusted her.

Then the phone call came. My mum was over at the time and her face fell as she answered the phone; a social worker was on her way round to talk to me about a report that had been made by my therapist. I remember looking at Isla and feeling like these were going to be my last minutes with my daughter, but the strangest feeling in all of it was that a significant part of me felt relieved. Not at the thought that she was going to be taken away, but the fact that now I was going to get real help, that I didn’t have to hide anymore and that whatever happened, as terrible as it may feel – Isla was going to be safe. Within 24 hours social care needed no further input because as it happened, I wasn’t a threat to Isla, not even a little bit, but I did pose a threat to myself (suicide is the leading cause of death in women in the first year postnatally and boy was I close to being one of those statistics). Social care referred me to the local specialist perinatal mental health team. My daughter was not going to be taken from me as what I was suffering from was extreme anxiety paired with intrusive thoughts. Intrusive thoughts? I didn’t even know that they were a thing. But they became the reason I didn’t want to be here anymore. I became suicidal – but it wasn’t that I wanted to kill myself because I didn’t. I know that sounds ridiculous because surely that’s what suicidal is right? But in my case I was desperate for the torment and physical pain to stop, I wanted peace and it felt that the only way I was going to do that was to end my life. Thankfully I didn’t but I came pretty damn close.

After some months of specialist counselling, mentoring from PEWS (Perinatal Emotional Wellbeing Service) and some medication I made a full recovery. However, there was one significant element that hindered my recovery which was peer support, speaking to someone who understood how I was feeling. I trawled the internet and eventually came across a lady who had a little girl the same age as Isla, experiencing what I was. We messaged each other a couple of times, and within a day or so we were speaking on the phone. That changed everything. Finally someone understood it, because they were going through it too.

I decided it wasn’t good enough for there not to be anything for women and their families across my community and in Essex so I set up Mums & Families UK, a peer-to -peer support network for families struggling with perinatal emotional issues, or just the challenges that being a parent can bring. What started as a small programme which Peter and I wrote one evening based on the emotions we both went through, and how we felt we could address that, has become an initiative that is being recognised as life-saving and as such we have recently won the Essex Families Included Challenge Prize. I type that and I still can’t get my head round it.

We began on 22nd February 2016 and just over a year later we are an established organisation, with a reputation for helping mums and their families to recover from any form of perinatal mental health issue, often preventing things before they become more serious. It sounds silly to say it’s a dream come true – but it is. Not to have women suffer, of course not, but to be part of their recovery and for them to then want to be involved is just the most humbling experience.

The whole journey that me and my family have been on has taught me so much.  I am constantly meeting, getting messages from and collaborating with the most amazing, strong women who are passionate about maternal health and wellbeing. In a weird way if I hadn’t have gone through what I did, I wonder if I would be as fulfilled as I am today?

I am happy now, I have wonderful friends (I have lost a few in the process, but that begs the question as to whether they were friends in the first place!), and I have a wonderful family. Whilst it used to break my heart to look into Isla’s big brown eyes and feel shame, I now feel courage and pride as I got through it and came out stronger because of it. Yes we have our down days, our hard days, but that’s ok too. I strove to be this perfect parent – and here’s the secret – it doesn’t exist! But I am certainly good enough – if not more so and so is every single mum reading this who may have a little shadow of doubt over their heads at the moment. You are enough and that is all that matters.

I don’t beat myself up over things that are out of my control. I don’t put unnecessary pressure on myself – no one cares if me and Isla aren’t dressed before midday if we have nowhere to be. My advice is to enjoy the memories, the cuddles, and embrace the downright shocking days. All mums lose their shit occasionally and let’s face it, we had bad days before we had kids, and we certainly have plenty of them ahead of us.

I’m not making light of anyone who is struggling with any form of perinatal mental health issue. I know first-hand the devastating affect it can have and how it can feel like it’s going to haunt every happy occasion, memory etc, but it doesn’t. Eventually that sick knot goes, and yes there are little reminders every now and then but if I can go through what was honestly the most frightening, traumatic and shattering experience, not just for me but for my family too, and go on to have another baby (yes I’m pregnant and I’m going to be a mum for the second time in November 2017), then you can too. Yes I may become unwell again – statistics aren’t exactly in my favour, but it doesn’t mean it will happen again, but if it does, I’m ready for it. I know what to do to combat it should it happen again and the difference this time is I have my family and friends with a great understanding of the illness, and I also have an amazing army of women, both those I have met and otherwise who are standing by my side and are with me every single step of the way!