This time last year I was a patient on a mother and baby unit at a psychiatric hospital in the north east. I had suffered badly with depression before and after the birth of my daughter Adelina. I couldn’t see any way out of the darkness that had crept around my mind - like a particularly tenacious bind weed. I wanted to disappear forever into a softer, silent darkness - one where my mind would finally be free from the torture it so relentlessly inflicted on itself.
I was admitted to the unit on the evening of November 4. A Sunday. An ambulance drove me up the M6 from my childhood home and across the A69. Fireworks burst around me. The straps held me tight on the stretcher, my daughter in the car seat next to me. I couldn’t bear to look at her. I couldn’t bear her cries, her needs, her distress. So I stared at the signs - Mind your head, they said.
Last December was a blur of psychiatric assessments, care plans and trips home “on leave”. One of my fellow patients provided a surreal soundtrack of gospel worship songs and nursery rhymes at all hours of day and night. The world outside become festive and fairy-lit, inside our heads darkness reigned. At first I was only allowed outside for 15 minutes, with supervision. This gradually increased until I could come and go as I felt comfortable. The doors were locked behind me and other people decided what was best for me. When I was home or out on my own I felt a dizzying fear. I couldn’t decide when to cross the road, let alone how to care for my daughter. I longed for the doors to lock behind me and hold me.
There are glimmers of light in the darkness of my memories of that time. The miniature Christmas tree one of the nursery nurses got for my room. Watching Love Actually one wet afternoon. Making Christmas decorations and cheese scones. Making salt dough decorations with Adelina’s tiny hand print. The basket of fruit my work colleagues sent - the fruit kebabs we made with it, once the knives had been unlocked for us to use under watchful eyes. That sums up pretty well the odd mixture of kids activity camp and secure psychiatric hospital that is a mother and baby unit.
In those dark hard times I told people I didn’t think Adelina would ever learn to smile because nobody had ever, nor would ever, smile at her. She had been born into mental torment and suffering - that was all she would ever know. And yet it was there, on my institutional bed with its thick, waterproof mattress protector, that she smiled for the first time. Those primal muscle twitches at the corners of the mouth, like the first footprints in snow, the first plunge into the water of a glass-top swimming pool. She taught me something I had long forgotten - that happiness is as much a part of the human condition as sadness. And like laughter in a school assembly, it will always bubble up and burst into life.
A year on and, because in orbit we are fated to live a cyclical life, Christmas takes me back. I am still trying to hold onto those bubbles of hope and to embrace what is new. For me it’s a new job - with all the teething pains and giddiness my daughter too experiences on a daily basis. The challenge for me is the same as for many of us - to care for myself while trying to care for others as well. It goes against every instinct in my body but I must try. Like the flight attendant says, apply your own mask before you apply anyone else’s. You must have enough oxygen in your own lungs before you even think about doing anything else.