In February 2018, writer Laura Dockrill gave birth to her son. Like an estimated 13% of new mothers, her first few months were spent battling mental illness. She was struck down by postpartum psychosis, a rare condition that is thought to affect around one in 1,000 births.
Unlike postpartum depression, postpartum psychosis – as well as presenting with severe depressive symptoms – can cause hallucinations, delusions and mania. It can last for months. And sure, you may be vaguely aware of it now but a few years ago, it was so rarely talked about that many of us hadn't even heard of it.
In August 2018, Laura wrote a blogpost for Clemmie Telford's Mother Of All Lists about her experience. The post went viral. It was shared by thousands upon thousands of women around the world (including Laura's best friend, Adele), grateful that someone had finally given voice to the horrors that they too had experienced, grateful that they were no longer alone.
Now, Laura's written a book about her experience. What Have I Done? is a brutally honest, deeply personal and hugely readable memoir about becoming a mum...and then losing your mind.
Ahead is a short extract.
It was my first Mother’s Day.
I woke up alone and confused in starched white sheets in a bed that wasn’t mine. The room was office-y with a ‘homely’ touch, kind of Premier Inn-meets-hospital-ward. Cream walls and a navy-blue carpet. A sink. A mirror. A wardrobe. A desk. A chair. A TV. A small chest of drawers. A bathroom. A framed photograph of a hot air balloon floating up above fields in a blue sky.
There was no Hugo.
The door to the room was ajar. An eye peered in, watching me. I didn’t recognise the face it belonged to.
I was bleeding, my scar was raw and sore and my boobs were full of milk.
Is this a hell hotel? Have I done something really terrible? I feel like I have. Is this a posh prison? An asylum?
It was as though I’d been returned to the world from a blackout – like I’d been on a serious bender for the past month and this was the ‘What the hell did I do last night?’ moment, times a million. I felt like I needed to contact everybody in my phone in that ‘apologise to everybody for everything I’ve ever done’ panicked dread. But before I knew it, all the feelings that I’d been fighting against came flooding back. After a few sweet hours of sedated sleep, all my racing, looping, intrusive thoughts surged back and all I could do was lie there, looking at the ceiling, and say, ‘Oh no. Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.’
Because I knew I had to kill myself. And I really didn’t want to.
Even if I did, it seemed, there was no way of doing so. This room was kill-yourself-proof. The triple glazed window was jammed shut with industrial-scale locks. The TV was screwed to the wall. All cables were tied up: my phone charger; the lamp. It was like waking up at the start of some wretched zombie film in which I was the main character.
I looked at the captive electrical wires and thought, Ha! Joke’s on you, guys. I wasn’t even gonna do it that way anyway.
And that was why I was here, in this place, being watched, because I was having thoughts like that.
In fact, I’m pretty sure that somebody had sat in the room with me that night and watched me sleep. As in, that person’s only job was to sit there in the darkness, watching me. I had definitely asked somebody to sit with me because I was terrified of myself. And I wanted to feel safe.
A nurse came into my room. I knew she was a nurse because she was wearing a nurse outfit. I couldn’t bring myself to look at her. I felt like a child. No, like a wild animal that had been snatched from the veld and unloaded from some dark shipping container at a zoo. This is your life now.
‘Would you like some breakfast, Laura?’ I had zero appetite but I asked for scrambled eggs on toast because that’s what I’d been eating at the hospital and it reminded me of home. I was so desperate to feel anything that reminded me of who I am – or who I was.
I said thank you, though. I had to be polite. I had to work with this place.
The scrambled eggs arrived on a beige lightweight wooden tray with a plastic knife and fork. I felt weak, slow and extremely numb. I crawled towards the chair, the duvet wrapped around my head. My hands were trembling. I didn’t want the nurse to see my face because I was ashamed. Guilty. Disgusted. Ugly. Transparent. I felt sick for even eating, like I didn’t deserve the food. The eggs went down my throat like lumps of clay.
A month before I had been the happiest I’d ever been, and now I was a shell. Suicidal. Another nurse came in to give me tablets. I was scared, but the Laura bit of me almost wanted to laugh. This couldn’t be real. It was a cliché of a nightmare: you wake up in a psychiatric ward with no clue how you ended up there, a kind nurse gently coaxing, ‘Time to take your pills, *insert name here*.’
Oh. God. Oh God. Oh God.
What had I done?
I had a baby.
And then I went mad.
What Have I Done? An Honest Memoir About Surviving Postnatal Mental Illness by Laura Dockrill is out now, published by Square Peg.