Helen McGurk speaks to the brave Co Antrim mother who set up an online support group for women suffering from maternal mental illness
When Michelle Marie Bradley is having a bad day, she’ll glance down at her arm and see the words ‘This too shall pass’ inked onto her skin.
The Glengormley woman decided to get the tattoo after suffering from severe postnatal depression following the birth of her first child Alexis three years ago.
The sentiment reminds her that although things may look bleak now, those feelings are transient and brighter times do lie ahead.
Michelle, 31, runs a Facebook support group called pangsni.org (Post and antenatal group support), a forum for parents suffering from, or anyone living with someone who is suffering from, a maternal mental illness such as post/ante - natal depression (PND), anxiety or PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
Within a week of setting it up there were 90 members; there are now 200 from across Northern Ireland.
Michelle says: ‘‘The best thing about it is in the middle of the night, there is always somebody on who is going through the same thing, so if you wake up in a panic or upset or you haven’t slept, or you can’t cope, you can go online and say this is how I’m feeling and almost instantly somebody will be there saying ‘I’m right there with you’.’’
Michelle says more women have joined the Facebook group since the BBC soap EastEnders aired a storyline at the start of this year about the character Stacey Branning’s battle with postnatal psychosis. She said these women are sharing their own personal stories of desperation and are looking for someone else who can empathise with their feelings.
And if anyone can understand, Michelle can, having experienced horrendous postnatal depression.
Today, she is a pretty, lively woman, bouncing her baby Cooper on her knee, but three years ago following the birth of her daughter Alexis, Michelle was in a very dark place. Her problems began three days after getting out of hospital.
‘‘I had a dream pregnancy with Alexis. I was really excited, looking forward to having her. I had a difficult birth with her, not difficult by some other people’s standards, but I found it really traumatic.
‘‘The first two days at home were fine after getting out of hospital, but on the third day I was lying on the sofa watching TV and I got a flush of hormones which kicked off a panic attack which lasted four hours.
‘‘I was crawling the walls. I phoned my mummy and said you need to come and see me because I’m going to die. You need to get here now and say bye bye to me because I’m dying.’’
Michelle’s mum tried to allay her anxiety, but Michelle was literally paralysed with fear.
‘‘For about 10 days I trembled on the sofa and couldn’t move. Then I said to my husband, ‘I need to get up, I need to start doing something, because if I don’t I am going to be stuck sitting here for the rest of my life shaking like a ball of fear.
‘‘So I set myself three goals every day - really simple things, like, I’m going to brush my hair, I’m going to make myself some tea and toast, I’m going to walk to the front door and back.’’
But making tea and toast became a Herculean task.
‘‘For 45 minutes I sat in a panic on the sofa, thinking I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t physically get myself into the kitchen, I couldn’t take the bread out of the cupboard. But I forced myself to do it. Then I literally sat on the kitchen floor and burnt the toast because I couldn’t get up to take it out.’’
This episode kicked off a whole series of fears and anxieties related with food and sickness.
‘‘For the next three years I was afraid of getting food poisoning. I was afraid of getting sick. If I had a cold, I thought I needed to go to hospital because there was something seriously wrong. Any time the baby was sick, I got so panicked, I was watching her constantly and couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t see a way out of it. I started avoiding people. I couldn’t eat. I felt crippled by it.’’
Michelle described the fear as being like ‘‘someone is pointing a gun at your face and you can’t get away”.
‘‘It’s petrifying. When you are in the middle of it. You know it’s not normal, but you can’t stop it.’’
In her darkest moments, Michelle said: ‘‘Everything was really grim and I couldn’t see anything positive.’’
‘‘At one of my very worst times I had a big panic attack and I said to my husband, we need to get outside, I can’t be in this house. It was during that really bad snow years ago, so we bundled the baby up and we walked round Glengormley for an hour and a half before I could bring myself to get back inside.’’
Michelle’s doctor diagnosed depression and suggested anti-depressants, but Michelle didn’t want to go down that route, instead opting for CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy).
‘‘I did that for six months and it really did help, but it still wasn’t enough, so I sourced counselling for myself with a charity called New Life.’’
Michelle believes people still really don’t understand postnatal depression.
‘‘You can’t really talk about it to anybody, because people see you with your lovely new baby and they think, why aren’t you happy. But I felt like I was about to die 24 hours a day.’’
Michelle firmly believes there is a need for a Mother and Baby Unit and specialist midwives in Northern Ireland for women with perinatal mood disorders.
‘‘There are several women in the online group who have been separated from their babies; there’s a girl who has been separated from both her babies and she said she really struggled then to find a bond afterwards.
‘‘She was on a general psychiatric ward. This would be a frightening enough experience anyway, nevermind being separated from your baby and having all that anguish.
‘‘If you haven’t had mental health problems in the past and then all of a sudden what is supposed to be the happiest time of your life turns into hell and then you have to go into this really scary place.’’
Michelle believes many women, who are still unwell, will lie to get out of these wards because they want back to their baby, then they’ll end up breaking down all over again.
‘‘We need a place that feels comfortable and safe. I was always afraid if I went into hospital I would have limited contact with my husband and family.
‘‘PND is a very difficult illness to understand unless you have been through it yourself. Nobody else can see it.
‘‘The scariest statistic I’ve heard is that the leading cause of maternal death in the first year after a baby has been born is suicide. It’s killing women.’’