baby

'I went through a 33 hour labour on 2 hours sleep. After 5 more days with barely any sleep, I broke.'

This article contains references to mental illness and may be triggering for some readers. 

On the morning I’m due to be discharged, I start to cry, and I don’t stop. I feel completely out of my depth. I am drowning. One wave crashing over my head after the other, with no shore in sight. Panic sweeps through me with each breath in. When the nurse on duty that morning walks into my room with breakfast, her morning-fresh friendly expression collapses into one of alarm. Michael is standing at the head of the bed rocking Elsa clumsily. She is screaming. He is saying it will be okay. He looks at me helplessly. I am curled up on the floor at his feet not just crying, but howling, engulfed in misery. The nurse asks me what the matter is, takes Elsa and orders me to eat some breakfast. And then she says, "You really, really need some sleep."

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The nurse, whose name is Charlotte, sends Michael and Elsa out. She makes my bed, and I am given an hour or so to get some sleep. I am wound so tightly I feel I will tear in two. I lie there watching the clock. I think, Now I only have fifty minutes… forty minutes… twenty minutes to get to sleep. Something feels terribly wrong. I start to cry again and can’t stop. I press the buzzer next to the bed. I tell the nurse I can’t sleep, even when I’m given the opportunity. I feel as though I might never sleep again.

She looks at me seriously and says, "I think there is more going on with you than just the baby blues. I am going to recommend a referral to the Brisbane Centre for Postnatal Disorders."

Relief envelops me. The idea of going home like this and trying to look after my baby frightens me. When the obstetrician on duty comes by to see me about an hour later, he confirms that a referral to the Brisbane Centre for Postnatal Disorders (BCPND) at Belmont Private Hospital is in my best interests.

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That afternoon Michael is given directions to the hospital, and Elsa sleeps the whole way. I struggle to hold myself together. I can’t think about what the future will hold. I can’t think about what my hopes for this time in my life were. I can’t think at all or I will dissolve into nothing. I try to cling to the present, focus on the small details. It’s a beautiful, blue, late afternoon Brisbane winter day. The sun flashes through the car windows. I’m on my way to another hospital.

***

We ascend the steep driveway and park outside the main entrance of the Belmont Private Hospital. We walk through the double doors of the hospital’s main entrance. All of the sparkling liveliness of the crisp, golden August evening air dies like the bubbles in an old glass of champagne. I feel as though I am walking through an airlock into another universe. Elsa sleeps snugly in the baby capsule, unperturbed by the way her homecoming day is unfolding, unperturbed that the air fluttering in and out of her tiny nostrils and into her brand-new lungs is thick, like cotton wool laced with the smell of overboiled vegetables. I notice dust particles sitting fat and dull in a filtered shaft of sunlight as they might in a house that has just been opened for the first time in a century.

We walk past a deserted reception area, our tentative footsteps swallowed by thick, blue carpet with a swirly pattern. The reception desk is safely walled off from inpatients by a locked door and a double glass partition from the ceiling to the countertop, with just a thin slot at the bottom to exchange paperwork. Opposite the reception, a small alcove with a couple of armchairs and a coffee table provides a space for patients or their carers to fill in admission forms. As we progress reluctantly past the alcove, a gigantic piece of abstract art on our left seems to attack me from the walls. It is made up of huge panels of coloured clay tiles and fabric. It is alien art. A patient, a woman of indeterminate age with a face as grey as the tracksuit she is wearing with lank greasy hair and an expression that is somehow haunted and blank at the same time, shuffles past us without registering our presence. Her eyes remind me of a deflating, green balloon drifting lonely in a vacant lot. Terror rises up in me like vomit.

Aghast at the realisation that I am about to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital, I tell Michael that I can’t stay. I stop and am about to turn around.

Before I take another step, a slim, dark-haired woman in navy trousers strides towards us. Her smile is charged with energetic professionalism.

"Hi, are you Anita? We’ve been expecting you."

Her voice is reassuring. She is one of the BCPND nurses. She leads us past a drinking fountain, a smoking area outside, through more blue-carpeted corridors, past more bizarre tiled wall art, past a deserted nurses’ station and through a set of double doors with a sign above them: BCPND – NO THOROUGH FARE – ACCESS FOR MOTHERS AND BABIES ONLY.

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Before we left the maternity hospital, we had been told there would be a single room available for me at the BCPND. The nurse takes us to a large double room with a shared bathroom. She apologises, saying, "There must have been a misunderstanding. We have no single rooms available at the moment."

I break down again and beg Michael to take me home. I find the idea of sharing a room with anyone right now so unbearable that I promise I would rather accept help from family than stay in a shared room. In my mind this is not only logical but also a huge compromise on my part because usually I hate accepting help from anyone. The nurse argues strongly against me going home. She says, "Well, what other option do you have? You can’t manage at home like this."

Michael is torn. He doesn’t want to leave me when I feel like this, but he can see that there’s no way I’ll manage on my own at home in my current state. Finally, I agree to stay for just one night to try to get some sleep. I have to fill in what feel like reams and reams of admission and medical history forms. I try to pin down my life’s facts – I chase the details such as my name and date of birth down the endless corridors of my exhausted brain. There are questions about my childhood, my adolescence and my mental health history. I don’t recall ever having any problems. I tick no to everything. Eventually Michael is persuaded to leave. He has the unenviable task of informing my parents of this latest development.

***

After Michael leaves, I look around. My roommate is still away on weekend leave. The room can be divided by a curtain pulled across the middle of it. It’s a visual barrier, if nothing else. There is a shared bathroom, blue-grey carpet, fluorescent lighting and two beds at opposite ends of the room, each with a bedside table. My bed is by the door. The other bed is by the window. It takes a lot of reassurance from the evening nurse to convince me that Elsa won’t suffer unduly if she has some bottle feeds overnight to allow me to get some sleep. Everything I’ve ever read, every prenatal class I’ve attended, every impression I’ve gotten from the midwives at the maternity hospital, is that formula feeding such a young baby is only marginally more excusable than infanticide.

A little later one of the nurses comes in with a plastic cup of water in one hand and a tiny cup containing a tablet in the other.

"This is some medication to help you sleep," she says.

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I hate taking medication. The stubbornness battles for a brief moment with desperation. I am desperate enough for sleep, so I swallow the tablet without argument.

Finally, I sleep. Four hours later I am wide awake. My body has overridden the laws of pharmacology. I feel fine, and happy, as though everything will be all right. I’ve slept double the amount I have every night since the birth, and I can’t get back to sleep. Elsa is fast asleep in the nursery with all the other babies. I get up and make myself a mug of Milo and sit on the long, red couch in the common room, just next to the kitchen. There’s a TV, a book cupboard with lots of parenting books in it, several bouncinettes to put babies in and crates full of baby toys. It’s clean and tidy, a space where all is quiet and nothing bad can happen. The night nurse comes in and asks me why I’m not asleep. I tell her I’ve always been an insomniac and that it’s not unusual for me to be awake in the early hours of the morning. I’ve already had four hours’ sleep so I feel great compared to when I was admitted the afternoon before.

At dawn I sit in the armchair in the nursery kitchen and feed Elsa, while up in the corner of the room a small TV screen beams down a morning current affairs show. Golden winter sunlight slices through the windows. Michael visits in the afternoon. He brings flowers in a colourful tin bucket and lollies. He says, "Elsa can play with the bucket at the beach when she’s older."

I can’t imagine her ever being old enough to play with a bucket. That evening I swallow my medication and again reluctantly leave Elsa in the nursery to be taken care of by the nurses overnight. This time I only sleep for two hours before the tension in me overrides the medication to help me sleep. My mood is strangely elevated. I feel secretly delighted because I have discovered a superpower that no one else has. I no longer need to sleep.

If you think you or someone you know may be suffering from depression, contact PANDA – Post and Antenatal Depression Association. You can find their website here or call their helpline – 1300 726 306.

This is an edited extract from Abductions From My Beautiful Life by Anita Link, RRP $21.95. You can purchase Abductions From My Beautiful Life from any good bookstore or online. 

Image: Supplied.  

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Anita Link is a writer, author, a mother of two, a small animal veterinarian, and a passionate mental health advocate. Her memoir ‘Abductions From My Beautiful Life’ published in April 2021 details her lived experience of Bipolar 1 Disorder and is now available on most online bookselling platforms, including Amazon, Fishpond, and Booktopia. Anita’s  website is home to her blog posts (which are mostly opinion pieces relating to mental health and illness, but also cover other topics) book information, and media work. 

Feature image: Supplied.

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