Post-natal depression gave me hallucinations
Author Helen Walsh recalls the post-natal depression that left her hallucinating – and inspired her novel
'I never used to understand how a woman could leave her baby wrapped up in a carrier bag outside a hospital,” novelist Helen Walsh tells me over a cup of coffee in central Liverpool. “Then I had Leo.”
“For the first nine months, it felt as if I was being kept continually awake. I was shattered. I now know the extreme effects of sleep deprivation, and why it was used as a weapon of torture on prisoners of war.”
The lack of sleep started with a long labour that kept her up for three nights. On the ward after the birth, she begged to be allowed to sleep, to be moved away from the din of crying babies. Sleeplessness drastically lowered her mood. “The depression was black, malevolent and unremitting. When one of the midwives saw me coming out of the shower sobbing, she just looked at me in a 'you’re not the first, love, pull yourself together’ kind of way.”
In Walsh’s third novel Go to Sleep, her protagonist Rachel Massey becomes pregnant after a “knee-trembler with an old flame”. She dares not tell her parents, but she knows that she wants to keep this child, even if it means going it alone. “I will be the best mother a child could ever have,” she pledges.
But nothing can prepare her for that twilight zone into which post-natal sleep deprivation sucks unsuspecting first-time mothers. Rachel does not sleep from the day Bean is born and breastfeeding is difficult. He won’t sleep, so she walks the streets of Liverpool day and night. Three months down the line, she is hallucinating and imagining she has drowned her baby
For Walsh, 35 and living on the Wirra in Cheshire the fear was not only that she would harm Leo, but that someone else was already doing so. “When Leo was four months old, someone put nails in his cot, or so I thought.” The “nails” were, in fact, pieces of black fluff. She hallucinated: one day, breastfeeding her son, she looked down and saw not a suckling infant but a black cat. She became obsessive. “I checked Leo’s temperature constantly, I scrubbed the floors and surfaces – the threat of superbugs was everywhere.”
Meanwhile, Leo cried and fed. Like his mother, he barely slept. “He was such an unhappy baby,” says Walsh. “He was on the breast for hours. You couldn’t lie him down or he would projectile vomit. I’d take him out in his pram. I’d walk for five hours at a time, sometimes through the night.”
Unlike her heroine Rachel, who had no help, Walsh has a supportive husband – novelist Kevin Sampson – and equally supportive mother, a former nurse. “I was lucky. Kevin was a hands-on dad, and we had scores of people in uniform coming to the house. But no one could work out why Leo was so fractious.”
Eventually, a paediatrician diagnosed gastroesophageal reflux, suffered by more than half of all babies during the first three months of life. It causes them to regurgitate their food, leading to pain, vomiting and irritability. It persisted until he was nine months old.
Walsh says she became suicidal but kept quiet, fearful of being hospitalised. Life went on – until she went to a baby clinic and broke down. Her GP referred her to a psychiatrist.
Her psychiatrist diagnosed post-natal psychosis, the most severe form of post-partum depression affecting one in 1,000 women, according to the Psychiatry Research Trust. It had been triggered by severe sleep deprivation and was responsible for the hallucinations and disturbed thoughts. Her psychiatrist talked through various options, including medication and ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). But she had one simple treatment up her sleeve first.
“She told me to leave Leo with Kevin, go to my mum’s and take a sleeping tablet. I did, and slept for 12 hours. It was amazing. The world shifted on its axis, and motherhood turned out to be every bit as magical as my pre-natal fantasies supposed.”
Walsh also gave up breastfeeding, something which saddened her but which meant Kevin and her mother could share the night feed. “From then on, I would take a sleeping tablet once or twice a week – no more than that, I didn’t want to be conked out all the time – and go to stay at my mum’s. I did this for nearly two years.”
At nine months, Leo finally started to sleep through the night. When he was a year old, Walsh asked to be sterilised, terrified of feeling the same way again. Not without cause: the relapse rate in postnatal psychosis is almost 50 per cent in subsequent pregnancies. Her GP talked her out of it.
“I now have my son to consider,” says Walsh. “I couldn’t bear to be depressed or suicidal around him, and for him to be aware of it.”
Who can blame her, now that she’s living the motherhood idyll? “I didn’t bond with Leo on impact, but when I did I was in love. I still am.”
'Go to Sleep’ by Helen Walsh (Canongate)
For post natal depression support contact - www.pnd.ie