Seeking help for my mental health after the neonatal unit – Liz’s story

"I felt like a swan – looking peaceful on the surface but struggling madly to stay afloat beneath." Liz' daughter was born at 28 weeks. She shares how her neonatal journey affected her mental health

When you are on the neonatal unit, getting your baby home is the ultimate goal.

Every milestone is a step towards the hospital door that you are desperate to take your baby through so that the world can finally see that you are a mum. You are a family at last.

But the journey doesn’t end when you bring your baby through the front door for the first time. It is important to be aware that the enormity of what you’ve been through will start to set in when you get home. And while taking care of your new baby is incredibly important, it’s vital to take care of your own mental health too.

Isla was my second premature baby. The first, Rose, was a 32 weeker which in hindsight had a breeze of a journey. Isla, born at 28 weeks, had a more testing time. She’d needed a PDA closure with subsequent vocal cord palsy, severe zinc deficiency and chronic lung disease which required oxygen at home for three months. Following her discharge, we had two further admissions to hospital within a fairly short space of time.

Looking back now I can see I was working desperately hard to hold my head high and appreciate that we were home; perhaps a wobble was inevitable.

Liz Leek Story Isla

I struggled with the idea of bringing Isla home on oxygen; especially with a toddler to care for as well. Everything had to be handled so carefully and I was terrified of the risk of aspiration especially because she was unable to make a noise. I’d wake up in the night terrified that she wouldn’t be breathing. I didn’t vocalise any of these concerns because that’s just my personality – take it on the chin and just keep going.

I could put clothes on that made me look together, brush my hair, put some earrings in and have a smile on my face to reassure everyone that everything was ok - but it wasn’t true. I felt like a swan – looking peaceful on the surface but struggling madly to stay afloat beneath.

I kept thinking about the fact I hadn’t held Isla for the first ten days of her life. I had the motherly urge to smell her and care for her but all I could do was look at her through her little plastic box willing her to survive. After her PDA operation, Isla lost her voice and she would cry with no noise. I waited to hear a first cry that never came and we waited 20 weeks to see her first smile. Missing all of these milestones felt like it was leaving huge holes in my heart. Deep inside I felt a strong sense of mourning which I continued to suppress.

Liz Leek Story Isla At Home

Life continued; Isla grew older and around her first birthday I suddenly felt completely and utterly overwhelmed. I was due to go back to my demanding job but was unable to get to grips with everything that had happened. I was in a fog, my concentration off kilter. I was angry, feeling irritated and wronged all at the same time.

Not wanting to admit defeat, I continued to put off going to see my GP. I think this was partly out of shame and partly because I was in denial. I didn’t want to accept that I wasn’t well, didn’t want to admit defeat. But deep down I knew I didn’t feel like myself and I needed to be present for my girls.

When I eventually booked an appointment, my GP was brilliant and led the way. She helped me to acknowledge the place I was in and helped me to break down the self-built barrier I had to seeking treatment.

We initially talked about antidepressants but she gave me the time to come to a place where I was ready to try them. It was a huge deal for me, and something I had always told myself I would never do. But I realised I was stuck and agreed to give it a go. I started Sertraline. I didn't even tell my husband. I felt sick for a couple of weeks but began to notice that I was laughing and smiling naturally again, I felt like I was seeing things in colour once more. I am yet to come off it and waiting for a more peaceful time to try and cope without the tablets.

It is tough and no one gets it unless you’ve been there. Listen to what your inner voice is telling you about how you are feeling and if you can’t accept it speak to someone you are close with or someone more objective like a GP. You have climbed the mountain of the neonatal unit but remember you are still climbing mountains as you bring up your little miracles. In order to conquer the peaks that lie ahead, nothing is more important than taking care of your health in order to do this safely and well.

If you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this post and would like support, you can call our helpline on 0808 801 0322 or view our online support pages.

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