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I knew becoming a dad would be tough – but never imagined visiting my partner in a psychiatric hospital

·5-min read
‘Postpartum psychosis can occur out of the blue in the days following childbirth and it can happen to anyone’ (Hugo White/Laura Dockrill)
‘Postpartum psychosis can occur out of the blue in the days following childbirth and it can happen to anyone’ (Hugo White/Laura Dockrill)

When my partner Laura told me she was pregnant, we couldn’t have been happier. We’d known each other since we were kids and had always been best friends, but it wasn’t until we were 30 that we finally got together. Our paths crossed and brought us back into each other’s lives again – it was as though everything had perfectly aligned.

When Laura gave me the news about the pregnancy, I knew there was nobody else I’d rather go on that journey with. But our early experiences of parenthood were like nothing we could have anticipated.

Postpartum psychosis (PP) isn’t a term commonly found in the first-time dad handbook – I’d never heard of it, anyway. It’s a mental illness that affects around 1,400 women each year in the UK, and I had no idea that it was what Laura was going through until she was acutely unwell and suicidal.

PP can occur out of the blue in the days following childbirth and it can happen to anyone – whether or not you’ve previously experienced a mental health problem. Symptoms can include high or low mood, delusions, hallucinations and severe confusion – and Laura experienced pretty much every symptom going!

When Laura first went into labour we were feeling good about it. Everyone had told us we’d done everything right, and that there were no issues with our baby. However, the birth ended up being extremely traumatic, with our baby boy – Jet – having the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck twice. We also discovered that he’d been starving in the womb, and nobody had picked up on it.

When he was born, by caesarean section, I was so relieved. I saw him screaming and unhappy but he was alive, and initial checks found no problems other than his being a really skinny baby. I felt at that point that everything was going to be OK, and rushed over to Laura, who was still on the operating table, to reassure her.

Due to the physical and emotional trauma Laura had just been through, it wasn’t as easy for her to find that relief. We had to stay in hospital for five days, and Jet was feeding constantly because he’d been so hungry, so Laura entered into this world of total stress and exhaustion with no respite.

Eventually, however, we were able to go home as a family of three.

The line around what is and what isn’t considered normal after giving birth can be a bit blurry. But Laura was really struggling, and she kept telling me, “Something’s not right”. Since the birth, Laura had become gradually more and more unwell. It sort of snuck up on us. Things were extreme – but because the symptoms had come on gradually, I didn’t really see how bad it had got. Laura was by this point experiencing suicidal thoughts, paranoid delusions and hallucinations.

I kept making doctor’s appointments but every time we went we were sent away and told everything was “normal” for someone who had just given birth.

It was only when Laura’s best friend, Adele, messaged me after speaking with her on the phone that I first heard the term postpartum psychosis. Adele had been really concerned and looked it up. Laura ticked every box.

I called a psychiatric doctor and was advised to take Laura straight into hospital where she was immediately admitted. Leaving her there was the most terrifying part of the whole experience. I remember getting into bed with Jet sleeping next to me and not knowing if we’d ever get Laura back again.

Luckily, we had a reassuring appointment with the doctor not long afterwards and he looked both of us directly in the eye and promised us that Laura would definitely recover. Without that hope and reassurance, I honestly don’t know how I would have got through.

The doctor was right – Laura did completely recover, but it was a long road. She was only in hospital for three weeks, but recovery took well over a year, because there was so much to work through and recover from. It felt to me as if the most important thing to do was set aside everything else in life and just 100 per cent focus on my family. Nothing was more important than helping Laura to find herself again, and helping her build the strong bond that she has today with our son.

I believe that if there was more awareness of PP, and if we had got help sooner, it might not have taken so long. But once Laura was back on track and I no longer had to focus on her recovery, I found that my own mental health took a dive. I’d never experienced anything like it before, but panic attacks started to hit me. It was like a delayed reaction to the trauma.

By this point, Laura had done so much work on her own recovery that she was able to pass on the tools and guidance that I needed. Laura’s love and support – combined with a short course of medication – got me through it and I started to feel well again after just a month or so.

Today, I feel lucky that our relationship was so strong because I truly believe we’re in an even better place than we were before all of this. And I think a key part of our recovery was being open, honest and vulnerable with each other.

I’d urge anyone going through something like this to make sure that pride doesn’t get in the way of being honest and reaching out for help. You might think you should be able to sort things out yourself and keep going, but sometimes you really do need professional help – not just for your partner, but for yourself as well.

Hugo, formerly of The Maccabees, is a record producer and musician, and an ambassador for the charity Action on Postpartum Psychosis. Hugo’s partner, Laura Dockrill, wrote a memoir about her experience, titled ‘What Have I Done?’, which is available to buy from all good bookstores. To find out more about postpartum psychosis and the help and peer support that’s available visit www.app-network.org

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