Today, Thea Mae – my little warrior child – is three years old. I can barely believe how much time has passed since I first held in her my arms. Yet, it also feels like she’s been with us forever. These past three years have been eventful, to say the least. In addition to the usual ups and downs of welcoming a little one into our lives, we’ve had madness, grief and a global pandemic to contend with. I’ve been meaning to write a little about what happened after Thea’s birth; how it has been to be a mum who hears voices and continues to live in multiple realities. Today, on Thea’s birthday, I’ve decided to give it a try.
As with all stories, this one does not exist in isolation. It lives and breathes alongside so many other experiences that I can feel within me, other stories that are keen to be told. In telling one in isolation, I am leaving wide gaps. I’m not doing justice to a life lived in connection with other lives lived. Perhaps you might think of my lived experience as a crystal with many facets. This story is the result of a light shining through at a particular angle. As the light refracts you can wonder at the patterns it creates – but these patterns are fluid and changing. I hope my stories never become static and are never used to define me or my truths.
Content warning: This contains reference to my miscarriage as well as the birth itself and some pretty intense beliefs. Read it if/when you feel able.
The shadow cast by miscarriage
In my first pregnancy I remember waking every morning, bright and early, excitedly checking what random seed or fruit my little one was being compared to in my pregnancy app. I lay there for hours, in the early hours, imagining our future as I waited for Joel to wake. It was blissful, but I was also impatient. I wanted to get to the next stage – I yearned to meet this little wonder growing inside me. Then, when I found out that they had died inside me whilst my body was still carrying on as usual, I felt betrayed. My body tricked me with its hormones. The ‘missed miscarriage’ taught me that, once again, my body is not to be trusted. In doing so it reignited a war that I had painstakingly settled with a truce years before – one I had thought was in my past.
So, six months later when I found out I was pregnant with Thea – I was in shock. I remember seeing her heartbeat at our first scan. I felt that familiar bubble of excitement rise in me, only for me to consciously smother it with a blanket woven with mistrust. We’d seen Space Baby’s heartbeat, after all, and that didn’t end well. That blanket accompanied me throughout my pregnancy. At ever scan I expected to hear that painful protracted silence indicating the sonographer’s struggle to find a sign of life. My experience of psychosis helped enormously – I was already well versed in the practice of living in two contradictory realities. So, as my pregnancy developed I found a way of both acknowledging the amazement of growing a life inside me whilst being completely certain that my own toxicity would make such a feat impossible. I existed in the moment. ‘I am pregnant now’, I thought. I survived by restricting my gaze to what was in front of me rather than getting tricked into imagining a future I believed was not possible.
Welcome, Thea Mae
On 9th March 2018 Thea finally came out to meet us, face to face. To be fair, she didn’t have much choice in the matter as we required an emergency caesarean to give her the final push (or, more accurately, pull). Despite knowing that she was strong and healthy, I still fully expected her birth to be met with that protracted silence I had not yet heard. The one where the doctor tries to find the words to tell you of your loss. I remember repeating a mantra in my head, preparing myself for the worst as I wrapped that blanket tightly around me. This was the moment of truth – the place where my two realities collide. There was nowhere to hide, Schrödinger’s Box was being opened and she would either live or die. I was prepared for the silence, but what I heard was a yell and the excited babble of the surgical team. I heard the surprised voice of my midwife as Thea kicked him during her initial check. Full of pride and wonder and amazement, I held her to my chest. There are no words. I have tears even now when I write about it.
Thea changed our world
The wonderful thing about being dissociative, in my experience, is my ability to shelve things when needed. I stunned the nurses with the speed of my recovery from anaesthesia. I was up and walking way ahead of schedule and applied a single-minded focus to being cleared for discharge. On occasion the sedation and pain meds broke through these super-powers and after days of labour it was clear I still needed some rest. Thankfully, in those moments, Joel was there to pick up the slack. He was, and still is, a very hands-on dad and amazing partner. I remember walking out of the hospital with Thea tucked up in a car seat, covered in a special blanket gifted by a family I’d supported previously. Even then, tiny and fragile, she had a strength to her too. A spark that we were beginning to become aware of.
The first few months were intense. However, mostly people were stunned at how calm I was and the way in which I was taking to this mothering lark. Given my history, there was an understandable concern that new motherhood may overwhelm me – but it didn’t. On our first night home I remember Thea screaming for what felt like hours. I couldn’t settle her with milk. Being rocked seemed to make it worse. Holding her close to me I had this strange and certain feeling – I didn’t know what she needed, I didn’t know what to do – but what I did know is that if I could just stay calm and be with her, we’d be OK. And we were. My mandate, from then on, was to be steady for her. I oriented myself around her needs and shelved the rest.
Hello madness my old friend
There is something all-consuming about motherhood in those first few weeks and months. My connection with Thea, as her mum, existed on a fundamental level – body and soul. Pregnancy blurs the boundary between self and other – we were literally made of the same stuff, and yet remain unique. Prior to her birth, Thea’s survival was all on me (a fact reinforced by the ‘count the kicks’ mantra that Thea seemed to enjoy messing with, waiting until we were plugged into a monitor to break her slumber). Whilst birth enabled others to share some of this responsibility, on a very deep level I remained her primary connection. This was a profound experience, but it came at a cost. No matter who was looking after Thea, I was always the first to hear and respond to her calls. Not because others were absent, but because I could feel them before they were apparent. There was no rest. No off switch. The sense of space which is so fundamental to my own sanity got subsumed by the requirements of motherhood. Yet, in true new mum style, I shelved that too.
Looking back the signs were there for a while. A growing sense of unease. The time I sat staring at my arm, one evening, wondering whether I’d find wires if I went looking for them. The urge to find out. A sense of being out of control of my own body. The sense that, maybe, the video of Thea’s birth was a fake – akin to the photos of a fictional childhood held onto by a Replicant in Blade Runner. A comfortable lie to help me accept my role whilst concealing a greater purpose. These thoughts began to occupy my waking hours. I began to look out of the window and wonder when they were going to come and steal Thea away.
I didn’t verbalise this, at first. I held on to the details. What I was able to say is that I was exhausted. That I wasn’t coping. That I wasn’t sure I could continue. I remember even telling Joel, on a walk, that I was worried I might kill myself. My family rallied round to offer support. Joel took Thea out of the house so I could get some breaks. We all did our best and yet, eventually, it wasn’t enough. My ability to live in multiple realities broke down and I got stuck in the one I feared most.
Sat in a hospital waiting room, surrounded by the ghosts of previous admissions, I began to panic. Out of kindness, my dad had taken Thea for a walk around the grounds so that I could talk honestly to the psychiatrist I was scheduled to see. As sensible as this was, it left open the gate for my worst fears to run riot. What if this is part of the plot? What if they chose this time to attack and I’m not there to protect her? What if I’ve put both her and my dad at risk? By the time the doctor called me in my fears tumbled out, unfiltered. She was shocked. She had planned to discharge me as I’d been doing so well. I felt like I’d failed.
When help isn’t helpful
Later that day the Crisis Team called round. There are many tales I can tell about our meetings, but perhaps it’s easiest just to say that they were mostly kind but ultimately ineffective. The more they challenged my beliefs, the more I clung to them. I tried to explain that I was an android and that my main concern was working out whether I was programmed to protect Thea or harm her. In response, they encouraged me to look at the evidence … photos, videos. The more they fought against my beliefs the more elaborate my rationalisations became. I meticulously fixed any holes in my arguments with gaffer tape and thread. Joel stood beside me as I stepped further from our shared reality and, thankfully, made it clear that their help wasn’t helpful and got them to back off. With little else to offer, they began to focus on the importance of me accepting medication as the first step to my recovery. Despite my hopes to remain meds-free (I’d withdrawn from antipsychotics a decade earlier), I realised that this was the only option on the table. Android or not, I needed to drown out the noise to be there for my child.
The meds were effective. They often are, for me. Yet, even at the low dose we had negotiated, they stole my ability to think. Like a paper chain that gets wet and no longer holds its shape, any train of thought would become an amorphous blob. It took the energy from my fears. It took the energy from everything. Parenting whilst freaking out was hard. Parenting whilst on antipsychotics was a different kind of hard. It was calmer, I slept more and it helped create some approximation of space. Yet, I was like a balloon. Disconnected. Unreal. I needed others to help ground me. At this time the support of friends, family and – of course Joel – was invaluable. I’m deeply grateful to all those who came and sat with me, or gave me some space to sleep.
Making sense of it all
There’s so much more I could say about this period and the slow and winding path that I took through it. There’s more to say about what was missing, what could have been offered and what it has taught me about the inadequacy of our response to people’s crises. Yet, today I think I’d like to share a little of the sense I’m making out of all of this.
In speaking with other parents, it seems as if I managed to bypass the ‘normal’ worries of new parenthood. I just didn’t have the same concerns I’ve heard described by others. Instead, I worried about being an android and spent my time figuring out whether or not I was programmed harm the little being I wanted to desperately to protect. My dissociative ability to shelve worries in a crisis was pretty much how I survived a pregnancy experienced in the shadow of a miscarriage. It was how the natural concerns of new mums stayed off my radar. Without meaning to, I simply moved them out of sight. Instead of filing them neatly I’d done the mental equivalent of shoving them under the sofa in the hope of finding the time and space necessary to do a proper job. By the time I broke down my mental sofa was teetering on piles of intense emotional and physical experiences. We didn’t stand a chance.
At this point it might be easy to blame myself – to suggest there was something wrong with the way in which I approached motherhood. I don’t buy that. There something about new motherhood, new parenthood even, that demands a shift in focus. Our child’s wellbeing becomes the star that we follow. Everything else fades into the background hum of daily life. It’s a natural and highly adaptive response – yet it cannot last. My dissociative ability allowed me to stretch this further than most, but it was not that in itself that caused me to crash. Becoming a mum did not wipe my slate clean. I’m a mum that hears voices, sees things and is well versed in living with multiple realities. The belief that I am an android is one that I have been living with for years, since I withdrew from medication, and one that sits alongside the belief that I’m a human as long as I don’t poke it. I’m a mum with a history of trauma. I’m a mum who is multiple (and has many parts that have many different feelings about motherhood). I was a new mum who had yet to fully process the impact of a missed miscarriage. Chuck in some sleep deprivation, hormones and the massive life shift that is having a baby and … well … hello psychosis!
For me, psychosis has a way of bringing what I need to attend to into sharp focus – once we adjust our eyes and get used to its language. However, the form my psychosis takes is so often wrapped in layer upon layer of shiny paper that mental health professionals can easily get caught up in. In the rush to be helpful, so often, people end up missing the point. In fairness, I am still trying to piece the events of the last few years together. But I’ve had to do this on my own. I’ve had some lovely CPNs over the last few years, but ultimately they were ill equipped to walk alongside me. They provided a contact point and a space to offload, but they weren’t yet ready to unwrap my experiences with me and feared what such exploration might bring.
And so, I’ve had to piece this together in conversations with loved ones and – often – in my own head. I am still living with its legacy. I’m still not feeling wholly solid and grounded in this world, and I still have some healing to do. But, then, don’t we all? I’m trying to be both strong and vulnerable, to let both truths walk alongside me – neither overshadowing the other’s right to be. It’s still a work in progress, but apparently I’m human so that’s part of the deal.
You might wonder what impact my experiences have had on Thea. At times I’ve worried about this too. Yet, to see her growing up into this amazing confident sensitive warrior child who lives in the moment and has a deep connecting with nature is a blessing. It eases my heart to see her thrive. We have challenges ahead, I know. Yet, our family was forged in fire. Together, we can survive anything.
So, today I celebrate Thea – this amazing little being that somehow came into our lives. I celebrate motherhood in all its complexity. Three years ago I helped to bring someone very special into this world. I’m looking forward to continually being surprised by her as she grows.