I had a complete mental breakdown when my baby was three months old

Bonnie Doman

“It just wasn’t what I was expecting, none of it. The birth. The colicky screaming baby. The sleep deprivation. The utter sadness and overwhelming daily fear that I just couldn’t cope.” Bonnie Doman, mum-of-two, reveals the darks depths of her postnatal depression…

My name is Bonnie and I had a complete mental breakdown when my daughter was three years old and my youngest was only three months. Writing that sounds like I’m at an AA meeting for recovering alcoholics. I guess I am in recovery of some sorts, not from alcohol but from a very dark time that I really felt I would never emerge from.

If you looked at me and chatted with me you wouldn’t have a clue what I’ve been through. You wouldn’t see the hospital stay, the years of antidepressant use or the mental scaring from things I’d seen during my breakdown that still haunt me now.

Having worked for over 12 years in one of London’s biggest ad agencies as an art director, you would think I could cope with a lot of things. Sure, I’ve done presentations to boardrooms full of people and flown all over the world for big clients who trusted me to deliver great advertising.

But when it comes to having babies and raising them, I was completely clueless.

When my daughter was born it wasn’t the beautiful hypnobirthing experience I’d hoped for. After a traumatic emergency c-section, as she was undiagnosed breech, we were sent home and left to just get on with it. And that is exactly what we did, we just muddled through.

Bonnie Doman

It felt like I’d had a breech baby and now I was experiencing breech motherhood. Everything felt like it was upside down and that I was backwards in my ability to be a good mum. It just wasn’t what I was expecting, none of it. The birth. The colicky screaming baby. The sleep deprivation. The utter sadness and overwhelming daily fear that I just couldn’t cope.

Then my son was born and I became a mum of two and all those feelings and fears doubled because now I had two humans to keep alive, and two reasons to doubt myself daily. Plus all those other things doubled. The lack of sleep times two, the neediness of my first-born who hated not having my full attention.

I could start to feel my life and my sanity unravelling but I didn’t really tell anyone about it. I think looking back, I didn’t want to admit that I was failing at something that seemed so natural to hundreds of thousands of women.

Bonnie Doman

I remember when the breakdown finally happened. My husband was away with work and I hadn’t slept for more than a few hours a night. I mentioned to my doctor that I wasn’t feeling good and I started to cry and couldn’t stop. He gave me a prescription for antidepressants and just said I may feel worse before I feel better. How much worse? Like I wanted to die worse?

Within days of taking the pills I was hallucinating and hearing babies crying constantly. I was overcome with a terrible feeling like I was on a crashing plane and I couldn’t get off. It was constant and relentless. And that is when it hit, I describe it like a tsunami because it suddenly engulfed me and I was adrift, everything felt unstable and I was totally unable to look after myself let alone my two children. I did mention, didn’t I, that my husband was away at the time? But also my sister was dealing with a very sick baby with a hole in the heart. My support system was severely depleted and so were my reserves.

My mum, who has been my absolute rock, was torn between looking after my sister and her sick boy, and me. She hadn’t had to deal with anything like this before, none of us had, but she took the dramatic decision to take me to The Priory as it was the only place she knew that dealt with this kind of thing. She knew I needed specialist help.

When you’ve been to the very darkest of places and survived it really changes you

I remember once I was there asking them to just put me to sleep, make it all stop. I just didn’t want to feel like this any more. The guilt of not being with my babies, the shame of not being a good mum and the fear that I would never feel ‘normal’ again were horrendous. And so I was admitted to a mental hospital and there I stayed for six weeks and slowly learnt to be ‘me’ again.

The Priory isn’t glamorous, yeah there were a few Z-lister celebs shuffling around the halls but it’s not some glorified holiday camp, that’s for sure. I was put on the addiction wing as there wasn’t room anywhere else. I queued up for my meds with crack addicts and junkies and sobbed into my paper cup that I didn’t belong here and screamed at the guards that I’d had enough now, I had to get home to my babies. My boobs leaked as I was still weening my baby when I was taken away. It’s like they were crying for him, just like I was.

Towards the end of my stay at the hospital, when I was finally feeling brighter I was walking up the steps of the hospital when they came out with a girl on a stretcher. She was swollen and purple and the shock of it hit me like a bulldozer, she was alive earlier and now she was dead. It was horrendous. It felt like I was floating above her looking down, like I was looking at myself lying there. But she wasn’t me, she was just a reminder of what could have happened to me but didn’t.

When you’ve been to the very darkest of places and survived it really changes you. You are scared that you will end up there again, every anxious night or period of slight depression makes you fear a relapse. But that is also what makes you strong, you learn ways to cope. CBT has helped, I looked up my local IAPT services to find a good course (they can help you get access to psychological therapies).

Bonnie Doman

Telling people, just like I am telling you now, is like therapy too and the more you talk about it the less ashamed you feel. Also by opening up you allow others to feel safe enough to open up too. I’ve talked with so many women who have suffered or are suffering and feeling that you aren’t alone is amazing. Because depression and anxiety can happen to anyone – just like me or you.

Four years on from my breakdown and I still live with anxiety and a bit of depression on and off. I’m off meds (apart from the odd valium). My three-year-old is now seven and is still scared to fall asleep on her own – “Because one time mummy was taken away in the night and didn’t come back for a long time” the guilt never goes with that one.

Luckily my now four-year-old doesn’t remember anything and certainly hasn’t suffered for those weeks I was away (big shout out to my sister who went and fed a bottle to him every night when I was in hospital despite her own problems).

It has brought my husband and I closer. We did hit a particularly bad patch when I came out of hospital and we both had to learn to communicate more and also how to live with this new shadow that often rears its ugly head, usually at 3am.

If you are reading this and you are experiencing anything like this please ask for help, talk to someone – anyone – and know that things will get better, you will find a new way of living with it, where it doesn’t feel like it is overwhelming you. Because living with anxiety and depression is a bit like living with a lodger in your brain. You may hardly see them but you know they are there and can pop up at any time.