Nina McCallig gave birth to Heidi, her first baby, in May 2016. Having had no previous mental health issues she was diagnosed with Postpartum Psychosis 8 days after Heidi’s birth and was sectioned under the mental health act. Nina agreed to be interviewed for this blog to tell her story of Postpartum Psychosis illness and recovery, and to raise awareness.
How was your pregnancy? Were there any signs or symptoms to alert you that you might become ill?
No, I was well in my pregnancy. I had never had any previous mental illness. The only thing that may have been an issue was that my Nanny died when I was first pregnant and I was grieving for her during the pregnancy.
How was the birth?
The labour was quite long, the baby was back to back and I had irregular contractions which were very painful for an entire weekend, 64 hours in total. Once I went to the hospital it was very clear something was wrong and I was rushed to theatre almost straight away. At home I had taken paracetamol and that was all I had for pain relief throughout the whole experience really. I had been in pain for a long time and my baby was distressed, when Heidi was born the cord was around her neck four times and she was. It was a scary experience.
Nina and Heidi in hospital
How was your recovery in the hospital?
The hospital ward was busy and I felt like I didn’t understand what had happened to me during the birth. I was tired and in pain. I was feeling overwhelmed, vulnerable and wrecked. I was looking at the other new Mums they looked so happy, they had their little angels whereas I felt on edge, permanently. I was so upset but nobody asked me how I was feeling or coping. I didn’t sleep whilst I was in hospital and I felt my bed was in a dark corner within the bay. Looking back it was at this point I was starting to feel different. I didn’t want to see anyone, not even my Mum, which was very unusual for me. When I was in hospital all I wanted to do was to get home so that I could sleep and forget everything that had happened. By this point I hadn’t slept for 5 Days.
What happened when you got home?
Once I got home I started sorting all my things out and getting rid of all the things that reminded me of the hospital. In hindsight I think I had post-traumatic stress disorder, I wanted to get rid of everything that was a trigger for me. I threw away the dress I was wearing when I was admitted to hospital. I had used Sanctuary shower gel in the hospital, when I was at home and had a shower with this it took me back there so I got rid of that. Once I got rid of all the triggers that were in the house I was left with Mark’s and Heidi’s faces, I knew I could get rid of everything else but not my family. Around this time their faces went dark and I could only dress Heidi in bright clothes and Mark had to wear a white Everton jersey otherwise I wouldn’t speak to him. I started writing in a notebook to try to make sense of what I was thinking and feeling. I was forgetting everything, including what day Heidi was born, and writing things down was a way of trying to remember. However I would then forget what I had written and it was like reading something someone else had written. I remember not knowing whether I had a job and where I worked. When Mark read the notebook he realised how ill I was as I had been writing the name Hallie everywhere – ‘I gave hallie a bottle, she’s so cute,’ that sort of thing. Due to where I lived I had a different Community Midwife after had I had Heidi to the one I had in my pregnancy. The postnatal Midwife was less able to detect how ill I was because she didn’t know me. Looking back I think I was also missing my family as they were all in Ireland.
Nina and Heidi one week after birth, the day before Nina saw her GP.
What happened when you were sectioned under the Mental Health Act?
When a Heidi was 8 days old my mood was deteriorating and I hadn’t slept for 11 days by this point. I worked up the courage to see the GP but when I went to the surgery I felt unsupported, she didnt seem to know much about mental health, she was only a young woman and she said she couldn’t help me. I guess she was referring me to the specialists that I needed but her communication wasn’t clear and, of course, hearing something like this when you’re on the edge of insanity can be very distressing. It was the first time I had worn make up since Heidi was born. I usually wear make up all the time and felt I hadn’t been able to recognise myself in the mirror, it was a horrible version of me I had been looking at since the birth. In the GP surgery I looked in the mirror and recognised the reflection as the ‘old me’ but then it felt like the person I read about in the diary that l had been keeping was all of a sudden standing in front of me. I left the GP surgery, as I went outside I felt like I was discovering the world for the first time; I was knocking on doors; talking to people in the pub; going behind the bar. I was carrying Heidi and Mark knew I was unwell so he tried to take her off me but I wouldn’t let him and smashed his phone. An off-duty police officer asked Mark my name and followed me, talking to me whilst he waited for the police to come. When the police arrived they restrained me but I punched a police officer in the face and smashed a wing mirror off the police car. I recognise now that I was psychotic and needed protection from myself but I just remember the agonising pain I was in as I was restrained because I had a Caesarean. I remember screaming and screaming. I was taken to Accident and Emergency, and following an assessment and medication I was sent home. I took the sleeping tablets I was given and slept for an hour but then I was up. I no longer knew who Mark was. All I knew was how I had been feeling such pain, the colour black and the pink nail varnish I was wearing. it felt like i had just woken up from a coma By this point it was the following day and my Mum had arrived, but when I saw her I thought I was hallucinating and didn’t know who she was. She could see how ill I was and called the Doctors, they advised her to take me back to Accident and Emergency. Because I was psychotic I thought I had died from the pain and I was back from the dead reliving the same day again. From there I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act and I was transferred to a Mental Hospital. As I was going up the steps to the hospital I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. I was trying to take Mark and my Mum with me but they couldn’t come. This was even more bizarre because I don’t believe in heaven. Once there I didn’t remember being sectioned and was trying to escape. I was given tranquilisers and anti-psychotic medication. I stayed there until the medication started to take effect and I started to get better. I really disliked being in the Mental hospital, however I recognised I was ill and needed to be there. I took the medication and focussed on getting better.
The fence where Nina was restrained by the Police and the colours are how the world appeared to her that day.
When did you get discharged? What happened then?
On day 19 I was discharged home but I was still very ill. I was supported by an Early Intervention Team (EIT) Nurse who was brilliant. In fact the world brilliant just doesn’t cut it – she was absolutely fantastic and still to this day I would consider her a great friend of mine. When I look back at photos from that time I can see that I am not well. Lack of concentration was a big problem for me, I couldn’t sit still so I decided to sew cushions. I would set up the sewing machine in the garden because I hated being inside after being in the hospital and I would set an alarm and make myself concentrate on sewing cushions for an hour. It gave me a focus and a purpose. I listened to music and made myself go out of the house. My memory was still poor though, I couldn’t remember what I had done the previous day so I started to take photographs. Each day I would look at the photographs from the day before be able to piece together what I had done. When I had been in hospital I wore a watch with an alarm set to 2pm, visiting time, this was part of what got me through the days as an in-patient. When I was at home I didn’t change it. We went away to Wales and I was stood on the beach when my alarm went off, I looked down and took a picture of my wellies and the sand. I then decided I would take a photograph every day at 2pm and hold an exhibition of the photographs to aid my recovery and raise awareness. By taking the photographs, finding frames in charity shops, cleaning and painting them then framing the photos I was able to focus on my recovery. Up until this point I hadn’t been able to return to the road where I had my very public meltdown, I had always kept my eyes closed when we drove past. I returned there and took photographs of the different places where various events happened during my meltdown in order for me to process what had happened. I was advised to be on antipsychotic medication for at least 2 years but I felt much better after 4 months so discussed stopping medication with my EIT Nurse, she said it was against advice but said she would support me. I was really grateful that she took the time to listen to my reasons for wanting to stop the medication and for supporting me in that decision.
Images of bars and a padlock; representations of how Nina was feeling trapped and lost within her own mind.
Do you think there were any key factors that contributed to your Postpartum Psychosis?
The traumatic birth I experienced and following PTSD were definitely contributing factors. I didn’t sleep throughout my labour which was 64 hours and I was on edge in hospital and couldn’t sleep. After that I couldn’t sleep at home and in total didn’t sleep for 11 days. The sleep deprivation was a major factor. I think if there had been continuity of my Community Midwife there would have been more chance it would have been identified earlier. If my mental health had been discussed more in general and if I had been told of the warning signs of postpartum psychosis in the antenatal or early postnatal period we may have been able to notice the signs earlier.
And you have written a book about your experience, can you tell me about that?
It is an open and honest account of my experience of postpartum psychosis. It tells the story of a competent strong educated woman who became very ill very quickly, yet was able to make a full recovery. By speaking out about my mental health issues I want to break the stigma that surrounds them. I want to raise awareness about postpartum psychosis so women and their families know the symptoms. My book is important because it shows how ill I was yet was able to make a full recovery, and if I can do it anyone can.
The day Nina left the mental hospital she felt she needed to leave Liverpool and went for a day out in New Brighton with her family.
Nina’s watch she kept set to 2pm, visiting time, and the picture of her wellies where she was inspired to take photographs at the same time every day to chart her recovery, which she has now written in a book.
Nina and Heidi last month. Nina is now medication free for 9 months without relapse.
Key facts about Postpartum Psychosis;
Postpartum Psychosis (PP) is a severe mental illness which begins suddenly following childbirth.
Symptoms can include hallucinations, delusions, mania, depression or confusion
1 to 2 women per 1000 Mothers experience PP each year in the UK which equates to over 1400 women.
PP can be a very frightening experience for women and their families. Most women go on to make a full recovery, however the journey can be a long and difficult one.
(Facts cited from http://www.app-network.org/)
If you suspect you or someone you know is affected by PP you need to seek urgent medical attention through your GP or local A&E department.
If you need any more information help or support these websites may be useful;