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Updated 09:46, 8 Sep 2014
By Rachel Toal
New mum Eve Canavan, 33, recalls the terrifying mental illness that struck after the birth of her son
Loving cuddles: Eve with Joe, now aged four
Giving birth should be the start of a wonderful journey but for first time mum Eve Canavan it turned into a nightmare.
Eve, from London, was struck down with postpartum psychosis – a severe mental illness which made her hallucinate about death and shun her newborn son.
Here she recalls the horror and explains how she got the help she needed to come through it.
“Getting pregnant was so exciting. John and I were in a loving relationship, and I couldn’t wait to be a mum. Mental illness had never affected me and it never occurred to me I wouldn’t breeze through new motherhood.
The birth, a planned caesarean, was calm and straightforward. Lying in theatre after delivery, I overheard John and the midwives gush about how beautiful the baby was. But when Joe was handed to me, instead of a rush of love, numbness dulled my senses. ‘Maybe it’s the drugs,’ I thought.
Soon after, my mum arrived. ‘What’s wrong with your face?’ she asked. My glazed expression raised concern, but still I felt no emotion. As John smiled at Joe’s tiny face, transfixed, I felt detached, unable to even look towards his cot.
Alone in hospital that night and hooked to a catheter, I lay helpless and in pain for six hours as Joe screamed in hunger. When the midwife eventually responded to my calls for help, she called me a ‘silly girl’ for neglecting him. Frantic, I punched out a rambling text message to John. ‘I’m useless… I’m not coping… I’m a failure…’ For the next two days John tried to reassure me, but my mood deteriorated.
Then, on the car journey home, terror overwhelmed me, and I sobbed uncontrollably. What had I done? Being a mum is forever. I felt trapped by my new role, panicky at the thought of being near Joe.
Happy families: Eve Canavan with John and baby Joe
At home, I wandered around in constant fear, begging John not to leave the house. Luckily, he was on paternity leave, and tried to soothe me.
I woke the next morning, screaming, ‘I can’t do this’. I breastfed Joe out of necessity, but I never cuddled him as I was scared of being close to him.
My terror grew over the next few days until, at an unrelated visit to my GP, I became hysterical, screaming and crying. Once the doctor learned that I was scared stiff, she asked me to return in a week, saying it was too early to do anything. It was the start of many visits. Each time, the GP talked about ‘baby blues’, eventually prescribing me antidepressants.
In the meantime, my behaviour got more bizarre. Once, John found me in the kitchen, dolled up with perfect hair and make-up, manically cleaning. I didn’t stop all day. Another time, while watching EastEnders, I begged him to turn off the TV. ‘The curtains on telly are scaring me,’ I said.
I hallucinated that I was in a coffin and, once, that I was floating in the corner of the room, looking down on myself. All the while this didn’t seem irrational to me; I was trapped in a bubble. Every day was like a nightmare.
My ramblings were incoherent. ‘I’m trapped in the world,’ I told John. ‘Maybe we could cut through the clouds with scissors.’ Out of his mind with worry, all John could do was keep taking me back to the GP, who promised the pills would kick in soon.
John’s paternity leave ended after four weeks, and I went to pieces. In desperation after his first day back, he called the health visitor, who advised us to stay with family for support.
The next few days are a blur, but I remember waking in the night at my in-laws’ house in Nottingham. ‘I feel like dying,’ I told John in the darkness. He took me straight to an out-of-hours surgery where I shook with terror, repeating that I was trapped in the world.
Unbelievably, the doctors weren’t overly concerned, but John convinced them to refer me to a local psychiatric unit for mothers and babies. He only knew of it because his mum’s friend worked there.
We had to go home before being admitted in the morning. That’s when my psychosis took over. There was nothing John could do to get through to me; I’d lost all rational thought. Frenzied, I paced up and down the stairs. Then, I got on all fours, screaming. The terror was overwhelming.
At hospital, I felt shaken, anxious, but relieved. Joe and I had our own room, the staff treated me with respect and, finally, I was taken seriously. A consultant diagnosed postpartum psychosis, an extreme post-birth mental illness. He prescribed antipsychotic medication and weaned me off the antidepressants.
For the first few days I was still very ill, but within a week, the bizarre behaviour and delusions about being trapped disappeared, leaving just my fear to overcome. ‘You’re a good mum,’ the nurses promised. Before long, I plucked up the courage to close the door to my room and spend the night alone with Joe. It was a huge step.
After two weeks, I returned to my in-laws’ house. With the support of a community nurse and John, who’d been granted compassionate leave, I slowly got better. Tasks which had once seemed horrifying, like getting the bus with Joe, became easier. Gradually, we formed a bond.
At a review at 13 weeks, the doctors couldn’t believe the change in me. Finally, I was ready to move back to our home in London. Therapy and several more months of medication helped my recovery and I grew to love Joe with all my heart.
I used to feel sad and bitter about those early weeks, but now I feel lucky. If I hadn’t been admitted to hospital, I honestly believe I wouldn’t be alive today. In the space of four years, I’ve gone from being terrified of my son, to not wanting to be without him. I’m determined to keep talking about what happened, because no one should have to go through what I did.”