Voices in the dark

'I had no idea it was so bad.' This is what a friend told me, after reading my article. Which was strange because I remember describing it to her, once I was over the worst, in quite painstaking (and assuredly tedious) detail. I thought at the time she had understood, not least because she'd also suffered from depression. But somehow the 'postnatal' tag, and the fact that the disease is so common, reduces its seriousness. There's still a tendency to confuse it with the 'baby blues', as I guess I did, even when I was in the thick of it.

But the letters and emails that came in after my piece show how wrong that assumption is. These accounts were sent by a variety of women. Some had experienced PND 30 years ago, some six months ago. One gives an account of growing up with a mother whose personality was changed as much by the treatment as by the illness itself. It is quite hard to read these stories, just as it must have been quite hard for those women to read mine; I also know how painful it is to put those memories down in writing. 'It felt a bit like walking too close to a slippery cliff edge and has taken a while to settle down again,' wrote one correspondent, describing the aftershocks of reliving her experience. 'I do know that it is all behind me now, but I suppose it is a measure of what a profound effect it had.'

It hurts to learn of other women - women like you, women unlike you - suffering in the same way, dragging themselves through the days, agonisingly conscious that it is all going to waste and means nothing. Even after recovery, you're left with a black hole where happy memories should be. And yet I'm also conscious that we're the lucky ones; yes, even those who ended up being sectioned. We are the one in 10 who are diagnosed; we worked out (or were told) what was wrong with us. No one knows the numbers of women who slip through the net.

Motherhood is hard. It's exhausting, relentless and, no matter how much reading you do, it comes as a shock. But I believe we're in danger of underselling the pleasures of mothering, skimming over those sharp moments of joy. Perhaps it's not wanting to sound addled and soppy; maybe it's tact in the face of the fertility crisis. But I think we need to redress the balance. Otherwise, there is a danger that women will continue to make the mistake I did, of confusing PND with 'the usual'.

Your letters

I had my baby 29 years ago. Things were different then: none of the books at the time covered PND, only the 'baby blues' - feeling teary for a few days. Weeks passed into months. I kept waiting. I would freak out. I wanted to take my clothes off and run across the fields outside my house. I wanted to push my fist through the window and my husband had to stop me. I was frustrated; he didn't seem to understand how I was feeling. How could he? I didn't either. All the time I had to fight the desire to break out, to do extreme, dramatic things. I am an artist and need to paint, it's part of who I am. My husband encouraged me to, but I couldn't get it together. Instead I did the garden. I dug a huge vegetable plot. One day, I went on digging, digging until 10pm, so that I could make myself physically feel as if I had done something different from just feeding and cleaning the baby.
Isla, Bedfordshire

I am recovering from PND after the birth of my daughter six months ago. As well as getting full-blown eclampsia, I felt no attachment to my new daughter and was in my own little world of panic and horror, I just wanted to die. PND completely changed my personality. Now, I'm doing much better - I get a lovely feeling when my daughter gives me a toothy grin and I feel there is hope of me getting back on track.
Charlie Constable, Oxfordshire

Nothing seems to have changed re PND treatment since I suffered from it 30 years ago. I ended up on tricyclic anti-depressants, plus tranquillisers for the side-effects of anxiety, which left me suffering for much longer than I should have - five years or more! Most sad, in retrospect, is that, as a mother, one seems not to have a proper memory-bank of the days, weeks, months, years, of one's child's babyhood and early life: there are a few special incidents that stand out, but otherwise it's just a black hole of shrouded memory.
Dr Julie Miller, by email

I suffered with PND after the birth of my third child. I became increasingly irrational and this must have been picked up by my community psychiatric nurse. Finally I was sectioned. I was in hospital for just over a week. I didn't eat, I didn't sleep. This didn't help me bond with my baby. My husband came two or three times a day. I didn't see anyone else, I didn't want to. Why couldn't I go home? I was taken off the section two weeks later. I struggled on, had medication changes. Some were horrible, when I came off them my brain seemed to shake uncontrollably. Eventually, I was put on pills that made a difference. I started to feel better. The black mood does descend on me now and again, but I'm not where I was. It's so hard for anyone to understand unless you have been there yourself, stood on that precipice with the blackness yawning out in front of you. How easy it is to take that step forward into the blackness, but how hard it is to take that step back into normality.
Frances Brook, by email

I was born in the Fifties and my mother had severe PND after my birth; so severe that she was hospitalised and I was sent away to be looked after by a housemaid in my grandmother's house. As far as I know, my mother was given electric-shock treatment and I gather this flattened out her personality. But the one irrefutable result that shaped my life was that she didn't bond with me and, in fact, disliked me all her life and still does (she is in her eighties). My mother's illness dominated our lives, with me as the scapegoat, blamed for all the family's ills. I did not suffer from PND myself, but I would never scapegoat my daughters the way my mother did me. This illness is tragic and I desperately hope that modern medicine finds ways to treat it so that no one has their life blighted like mine.
Marian Redmond, by email

I can barely remember the first six months of my eldest son's life because of PND. I could not understand the way I felt. For a couple of years all I'd wanted was a baby, so when after six months I finally conceived I couldn't have been any happier. After a reasonably trouble-free nine months and a five-hour water birth, I felt elated. Holding my son for the first time was the happiest moment I've known. It was probably after our first day and night together that I started to wonder what I had let myself in for. I suddenly realised that my life was no longer my own; he controlled when I could sleep, when I could eat, he even dictated when I could go to the toilet. I never wanted to harm my child or myself, but I wanted to escape. The worst point was when I went into my morbid phase. I became obsessed with death. I was terrified something was going to happen to my son. I began to hear voices telling me what was going to happen to him. I didn't dare tell anyone (in fact, writing this is the first time I've admitted to it), I thought I would be taken to the nearest psychiatric ward - and then who would take care of the baby? Looking back, I can't believe I got through it, I don't think I would have without the support of my husband, but I wish I'd sought help because I will always regret that I didn't enjoy the first months of my son's life.
Claire Mahon, East Yorkshire

A turning point in my PND was a visit to A&E to see the locum psychiatrist. He was a young Irishman who came to the swift conclusion that I was suffering acutely from PND. I was grateful for the tact, speed and professionalism with which he made his decision, but the point at which he delivered his judgement still has the power to send a shudder through me. 'Well, I think you may need to be relieved of your domestic duties for a while...' I knew this was a euphemism for admission to a psychiatric unit. He described the benign regime of the mother and baby unit, and explained the purpose of the approach was to keep mother and child together. I liked him because he seemed to appreciate the degree of suffering I was in and did not confuse the person I was with the PND.
Emma Liebeskind, London

My children are now in their teens but their early years are, for me, coloured by my feelings of misery, boredom and failure. I was completely screwed up, given to screaming fits, anger and misery. I seemed to be surrounded by women liking nothing better than long summer days with their children, when all I wanted was a day in the sun with a large drink and a cigarette. I got better, mostly because I acknowledged that this wasn't a passing phase. I talked to friends and my husband, I found a counsellor and I gave myself time to do things that I enjoyed. Sorting out the reality of parenthood from the impossible ideal was my way forward.
Annie Green, Leeds

· For help and information on PND, go to www.pnisha.org.uk, or call the Mind Info Line on 0845 766 0163, Monday to Friday 9.15am-5.15pm

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