Within days of becoming a new mum, Sara Shoesmith thought she was a tiny baby and her mind was infiltrated by horrible thoughts of death.
The moments after child birth were anything but magical or euphoric – Sara was consumed by panic and fear, believing she had made a huge mistake.
Postpartum psychosis took hold of the 31-year-old, causing hallucinations that made her think she was a newborn, and dark thoughts of harming her baby Aarya.
Just days after giving birth, Sara’s behaviour worsened and she was admitted to a specialist unit to separate her from her daughter and her partner Dan Sernandes, 36, because experts believed it was the safest option.
Now recovered, the mum-of-one, from Birmingham, has bravely told of her experience to help other mums suffering mental health issues after child birth.
Mums Enterprise, which supports mums after they return to work, said postnatal depression remains undiagnosed in up to 25 per cent of UK women.
Sara, who has her own therapy business to support mums and couples, said of her daughter: "Pretty much the second that she was born, things changed. I felt fine mentally, emotionally right up until the labour.
"Within a few hours of having her, that’s when I knew that something was very wrong. I was feeling completely numb, but fear and panic as well.
"Initially i just felt nothing, like there was no connection to Aarya or excitement about coming home. It was more of a feeling of dread and panic.
"I thought of things I never thought I would think, like ‘what have I done? I’ve made a huge mistake, why have I brought this thing into the world?’
"I didn’t want to accept that she was mine or want anything to do with her."
Sara has since become a psychotherapist and counsellor, specialising in maternal mental health and using her own experience to help other mums.
When she gave birth in April 2016, she had already started her training and was able to identify what was happening to her as dark thoughts crept in.
She said: "I told (my mum Sue) exactly what my thoughts were, like wanting to harm the baby, wanting to harm myself, just wanting to disappear, wanting to ignore (Aarya) and not wanting anything to do with her.
"I was having the most crazy out-of-body experiences, things that I’d say are really hard to describe.
"I told my partner and mum three days into it, and they got help straight away. A lot of the times if it’s not picked up mums might not ask for help or they might try and disguise it."
Sara said she was in the final stage of labour when she may have experienced her first hallucination.
She said: "I thought my daughter had already arrived. I could see the midwife holding her and this is whilst I was pushing.
"I remember saying or asking my partner something and they said, ‘no she’s not here yet’, and I thought she already was."
She added: "I think about three days after when I was at my worst I was lying in bed and I wouldn’t move or eat.
"I was just trembling severely and staring at the ceiling, and I had this vision of being trapped inside my body and I was a newborn baby that needed looking after.
"I was vulnerable and helpless and everyone else was really big.
"I felt like I was tiny and it was like I was standing above myself and I could see myself as a tiny baby."
By then, Sara had already thought of harming her daughter, now aged two, and herself.
She said: "I didn’t want her to wake up. I wished wish she would just die. It makes me feel horrible. I am so far away from that place now."
Five days after giving birth, Sara was voluntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital to keep her and her baby safe.
She was apart from Aarya until she was transferred to a specialist hospital where they could be together while she received care.
Sara said: "They were probably the longest days of my life. I had a five-day-old newborn baby and I wasn’t with her."
Looking back, she thinks the best option would have been to remain at home and receive care and support there, saying: "Knowing what we know about how to treat people, surrounding them with more ill people is the worst thing you could do.
"It was just like a prison or a zoo. A prison cell with a hatch where they open it, look at you and close it again. They did it all through the night and every 15 minutes, and I barely got any sleep."
She said saw a psychiatrist once a week and was given "a lot of medication".
Sara was transferred to a mother and baby unit once a bed was available. She was reunited with Aarya, who was 10-days-old.
They spent seven weeks in the specialist unit until Sara was deemed well enough to be discharged and to take care of Aarya at home.
Sara was much happier with the care she received at the mother-baby unit.
She said she began to emerge from her depression about 18 months later after seeing a private therapist, having regular visits from a community psychiatric nurse and going to group therapy.
Sara said: "You start getting pieces of your personality back. My medication was eventually reduced. Once I was off that I felt a hell of a lot better. I felt like myself again."
She said her uncle died suddenly the weekend that she came out of hospital and it forced her to be strong for others.
Sara said: "It wasn’t all about me being ill. I had to be there for other people. I had to be there for my dad."
She added: "But, mostly, what helped was being able to try and live as close to normal as possible. When you’re in hospital you can’t do normal things.
"The things that helped me were having consistency at home and having the support of your family."
Sara said her partner Dan was forced to look after Aarya in the days after she was born, along with her mum and sister Emma. Dan was signed off on stress leave for four months as her struggle took its toll on him, she added.
She doesn’t think there is enough support in UK for mums suffering postnatal psychosis or depression, or their partners.
Sara said: "What really annoys me and other women that I’ve spoken to is that it’s not consistent across the country.
"I know someone in Birmingham who had a fantastic service throughout her illness. Her sister, who lives 20 minutes away in a different county, had a completely different experience, a really bad one."
Sara is using her own experience and her training as a counsellor to help other mums and push for better services.
She has been to the Houses of Parliament with NCT to push for better six-week postnatal check-ups, spoken at conferences, designed peer support groups, taken on a role with her local NHS trust and counselled mums with a postnatal mental illness.
Through her business, Only Human Therapy, she does one-on-one or couples sessions, outreach through Facebook and retreats for mums.
She said there needs to be a national conversation to help end the stigma, encourage mums to seek help and teach parents-to-be how to spot the signs.
Sara said: "They just need someone to be completely honest with them about what motherhood would be like, not to sugarcoat it.
"They need to know about the things that could go wrong.
"They need to know about the mental health side of things, how they can prepare mentally and what to do if things go wrong.
"A lot of people don’t realise how serious it can be. Some people think it can be really tough, but that’s about it.
"They don’t understand that people do kill themselves and it’s really serious."
Related video: Woman’s postpartum psychosis made her think her baby was dead
She added: "You’ve just got to ask for help. If you’re in any doubt that what you’re feeling is not right, just ask for help.
"I knew I had to say it because if I didn’t it would be dangerous for Aarya and myself.
"You’re never alone and it’s never forever. You don’t think that you will ever get better, but you do."
Sara has been supported by Mums Enterprise, which recently launched a report titled "From Career Woman to Working Mum", as part of its "Happiness Project", after research found that as many as one in four women with postnatal depression are not diagnosed.
The report contains insight from more than 1,000 mums who discussed what mothers need to feel fulfilled and happy in their working lives after having children.
It found that almost a quarter of respondents have had a flexible work request denied by their employer.
Lindsey Fish, founder and CEO of Mum’s Enterprise, said: “Almost a third of working women are just putting on a brave face to the world every single day and don’t have a genuine coping or offloading mechanism – this does not bode well for mental health issues further down the line.
"It’s something we need to address now, as a nation and we hope that this report as well as our annual events will go a long way towards driving this change."
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