Updated: May 8
January 1st 2022. I’m about to swim at a cold water charity event to raise money for maternal mental health. Water temperature 14 degrees. I have never done this before. As I dive under the water & my breath is taken from me, I remind myself; “This is for you, and all of those other women like you. I will not let my mental health get the better of me”. The cold engulfs me, and off I go.
I found out I was pregnant in February 2020 and the UK went into lockdown in March. Like thousands of other women across the country I attended every antenatal appointment alone Although I had been a neonatal intensive care nurse for many years up until this point, this was my first baby. And I was scared. My pregnancy was uneventful, just different. Nursing heavily pregnant in full PPE for 12 hour shifts isn’t something I’d like to repeat! It all felt strange and anxiety naturally crept up in me for fear of the unknown.
When my son was born I unfortunately suffered a rare and complex birth complication which meant I remained in hospital for some time. My partner was only allowed to visit for 2 hours a day due to restrictions, which was incredibly isolating and frightening. I struggled with the transition to ‘mum’ & knew something wasn’t right. I felt disassociated from my surroundings, everything felt scary & I constantly felt in survival mode.
When he was 3 months old I experienced a rapid & acute onset of mental health decline. I accessed immediate support from my GP who quickly referred me to the local perinatal mental health team. On assessment I was placed under a team who specialised in baby loss and birth trauma. Birth trauma? The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind that this is what I was experiencing.
Assigned to a Clinical Psychologist she determined I had PTSD, postnatal anxiety and a sprinkingling of postnatal depression. She made me feel heard, understood, and she got it. This was monumental for me. We worked together for months doing talking therapy and things began to make sense.
Once restrictions had lifted & we were able to meet in person, it was then my life started to change for the better. I began EMDR (Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) therapy. We would revisit the traumatic events and reprocess them in a safe way. This is undoubtedly the most difficult thing I have ever had to do. Some weeks I suffered from flashbacks, insomnia, anxiety, shame, guilt, (the list goes on), and other weeks I achieved great things! But as time passed I began to feel a little bit better & started picking up tools and coping mechanisms which would eventually lead me back to me.
My birth trauma left me riddled with anxiety & hypervigilance but I managed to do something I had previously loved. Swimming. I had heard a lot about the benefits of cold water swimming and decided to take the plunge. I went every Saturday, an anxious wreck about leaving my son (for one hour!). But as soon as my body hit that water, the cold completely shocked my nervous system and I felt nothing far from free. I met so many women from all walks of life, some would turn up at 9am with bright red lipstick and a wetsuit on. This always made me smile. Everyone giving each other a knowing look that we were all there for the same reasons, our minds.
When times in my head felt bad I would search for support from others, family & friends. I sometimes didn’t even know what to say, but expressing my emotions or saying “I’m struggling today” was enough for them to understand and provide support. Being able to feel your emotions, and notice your thoughts, letting them pass by like leaves on a stream is a skill worth investing time in. By acknowledging emotions but not giving them any power is a helpful tool when learning that these feelings won't last forever.
A really quick fix for when times feel cripplingly hard is just going for a walk outside. Stick on a podcast or use mindfulness techniques to bring yourself back to the present moment. I often try to focus on 5 things I can see, 5 things I can hear, 5 things I can smell when I feel overwhelmed with my feelings or out of control. I also do a lot of journaling in between therapy sessions. I find that putting your thoughts onto paper can be a really quick and effective form of therapy for yourself to make sense of the dialog going on in your mind.
Being a mum is hard, and it is not talked about enough! I will always advocate for other mums, because I know we all ‘get it’. But set boundaries, it's ok to say no and prioritise yourself. My therapist always talks about my “cup”, and how I need to keep refilling it with things for myself so that it doesn’t overflow by constantly pouring out to others.
Experiencing perinatal Mental Health can feel really hard and really scary. The pull of motherhood is strong. It is constant, it’s all consuming and also absolutely beautiful. Hold on. Hold on to all the positives, anything you can. There will always be something that makes you feel it's worth the fight. Most importantly, talk to people. Anyone you can. There are so many groups and charities set up for women who experience Perinatal Mental Health, use them. The statistics of women who suffer from this are high, you are not alone. Doing things that will help you get better all take time, but time really is the greatest healer. It gives you the space to process events, reflect, look inside and out. I often thought “I should feel happy” but what I came to realise is that healing is a process & happiness is just one part of that journey. You can’t expect light without seeing the dark, and it is in those darkest moments when you feel like you “just can’t”, you will find a strength and resilience within yourself that you didn’t know you had (trust me, I’ve been there). Tough emotions are hard and your experience into motherhood will change you. But somewhere in all of this you will find yourself again. In the words of Carl Jung “I am not what happened to me, I am who I choose to become”.
About the author
Laura Dickerson is an experienced neonatal intensive care nurse and mum of one. She lives by the sea and has a huge love for the ocean and anything outdoors in nature. She is focused and passionate about supporting, and advocating for maternal mental health after experiencing her own birth trauma. Trained & qualified in baby massage she teaches techniques to promote the holistic wellbeing of babies as well as mums, in a nurturing way.